Illustration and text by Susanne Gold
We are all waiting for the end of the pandemic – the end of the lockdown. Many feel as if they are sitting in a global waiting room and are annoyed by it. We want our accustomed life back. Is there anything good about the lockdown?
The state of waiting plays a decisive role in existential philosophy.
The philosophical idea behind it is that man first has to get rid of all distractions of everyday life in order to find himself in the following emptiness. There he has to be able to come to terms with himself. Many people are currently experiencing this state of emptiness – not only because they are unable to assess and plan their future, but also because they cannot pursue their activities in the usual way.
When adults are bored, they do not primarily suffer from empty time, but feel disappointed in their expectations. (Stefan Klein)
The world stands still. Globally, people are in a vacuum – in a vacuum – floating in the void of uncertainty, where even the near future seems unplannable or predictable. We don’t even know today what we can and may do on our next holiday.
Although the philosophical guiding idea of the existential philosophers originated in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is more relevant today than ever. In the midst of the global pandemic, we are all waiting for the opportunity to resume our hectic activity.
Benefiting from the void.
According to the advocates of existential philosophy, strong emotions such as boredom, fear, worry, disgust, as well as the realization of one’s own transience and mortality lead to a blessed emptiness. Only then, when the absurdity of life tears away the ground from under our feet, we are able to break out of our usual everyday life and question our existence. All too often, it is the everyday routine that makes our life time irretrievably and senselessly elapse.
Industrialisation marked the beginning of the rule of the clock – formal time sets the pace of our lives.
We have not always followed the time clock, but still we have followed a rythm- our subjective time. Not only we humans, but every other living being has an innate sense of time, which functions independently of our environment. Thus, some plants stretch out towards the sun even in darkened rooms at the same time of day. For humans, this is similar, as the speleologist Michel Siffre proves. In his self-experiment he stayed in a cave for months. He found it increasingly difficult to tell how much time had passed and to estimate time spans. Strangely enough, in the months of darkness and seclusion, periods of time seemed much shorter to him than they actually were. And despite the seclusion, he followed a similar rhythm as the people outside the cave – and without any sunlight.
The rule of the clock – sociologists call it “formal time” – was born in the wake of industrialization, for the purpose of enabling people to coordinate themselves in the ever more complicated web of production and social life. The English philosopher Gerald Whitrow calls our time an “invention”. With the pandemic, our sense of time has gone out of step. We can follow it no longer.
Is it precisely in this that we might have a huge opportunity?
Only then, existential philosophers believe, when you are no longer able to follow your usual routine, do you begin to question your existence. From this point of view, the threatening wait for the end of the Covid lockdown is thus a hopeful action. It means nothing less than being released from the time clock and finding out who we are and how our inner clock is ticking.
What gives us security when everything around us is uncertain?
The philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that through the emptiness of waiting we could find answers to the question of the meaning of life. The philosopher believed that finding one’s personal meaning could not be outweighed by time. For only when people have arrived in the void, they can reflect and clear up burdensome emotions such as fear, loneliness or anger. So if you are constantly busy and always have a full schedule, you never have the chance to find your meaning of life. Friedrich Nietzsche called this “fortification against oneself”.
Hiding behind your busy schedule and closing yourself off from self-knowledge.
The boredom that many people now experience as a result of the lockdown is therefore – from the existential-philosophical point of view – a real privilege: Namely the privilege of leisure and mental emptiness that throws us back to our true meaning. Many have already begun to follow their own rhythm – to shape the day to their own beat.
What happens when a person lives completely without a watch?
The French writer Marcel Proust, who lived from 1871 to 1922, pursued this question and, in the process, made one of the greatest experiments in world literature: From 1912 he spent the last years of his life in a darkened room sealed with cork panels. In this solitude he travelled into the depths of his memory – into the time of his life.
The time of our consciousness is a rich reality full of sensory perception and full of feelings. An hour is not just an hour, it is a vessel filled with scents, sounds, plans and moods. (Marcel Proust)
In an ideal world, we would have infinite time.
But our time is limited. Even though – unlike Marcel Proust – we do not live in complete and darkened seclusion despite the lockdown thanks to the Internet, because we can communicate digitally with each other: Isn’t this a unique historical opportunity to enter our memories and the depths of our souls as a society?
We want a lot and create little of what is important to us.
We should set priorities and decide what we want to fill our time with. What really counts? With which thoughts, words and deeds do we want to fill the time given to us? A look at the things that other people regret at the end of their lives can be instructive. Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, experienced the same regrets and reproaches in her conversations with dying people: About not having lived the life they wanted. Remorse in the face of the choices that were made or not made. Self-reproaches because the realization came only when it was already too late. So let us use the standstill of our days to find out more about our true wishes. So that we can spend our time according to our emotional needs and not as efficiently as possible.
How do we even perceive time?
Scientists have long wondered that although we have sensors for warm and cold, for colours, taste and smell, we have no sense of time. They searched everywhere for an organ that measures time. But nowhere in the body could it be found. In their search, scientists had the strangest ideas. They were looking for the central clock of man, the “time animal” within us. The Viennese physicist Ernst Mach, for example, suspected a biological chronometer in our ears. Wilhelm Wundt, who developed the method of “introspection”, in which one observes oneself while thinking and feeling, founded the first psychological laboratory in history, in which a machine for researching the feeling for time was located.
Today, brain research has not yet penetrated into all the depths of this area, but at least we know that the inner clock is ticking from the different areas of our brain in context with our environment. Our inner clock measures where we are and what we are doing.
Our time is movement and space.
Our brain measures time by observing how our body moves in space. The social psychologist Robert Levine has investigated the differences in the perception of time (space and movement) and found that the inhabitants of megacities like Tokyo or Munich move, talk and react much faster than Greek peasants – twice as fast. The close connection between the perception of time and the way we move has long been known in Tai Chi. Master Yang Chengfu gave his insight to every student: “Seek the calm in movement and the movement in calm. Little Covid-19 decrees all people in the world to be calm. Can movement arise from this?
Can we find what really counts in the pandemic?
Is there a space beyond the time clock and the hustle and bustle of everyday life, in which the meaning of our lives only too willingly fades away? Maybe we will find those insights deep in ourselves that to help us to shape our world and our everyday life of tomorrow – after the lockdown differently – in a new and better way?