In a phone chat with a good friend this month, I was reminiscing about South Korea's final goal, which sent Germany spiraling out of this summer's World Cup. But as I was telling the story, I kept referring to the World Cup as something that had taken place "last summer"— as in, the summer of 2017. I said the phrase about five times before my friend stopped me and reminded me that the World Cup took place this year; the final was played a mere five months ago.
After I was silent a moment, she reassured me. "Don't worry, I've been doing that too."
She was referring to something that a lot of us have struggled with: Time has become a long and telescoping tunnel with no frame of reference or scale. On Twitter, a person tweets about how jarring it is to remember that there was an Olympics this year, and I run to Google, insisting that it can't possibly be true. I get asked to make end-of-the-year album lists, and I stare at releases from January and February that feel like they came out two or three years ago. Another friend of mine is shocked to recall that Black Panther did, in fact, come out in 2018.
This sense of time out of joint felt funny when I first sensed the phenomenon, around the 2016 election cycle, with so much happening at once that time became both trivial and elastic. My pals and I would joke about how weeks or months felt long, but in those moments, I never felt like I was losing an actual grasp on the progression of time.
I traveled a lot this past year, which means I've looked longingly out of a lot of airplane windows. Planes cut through the sky at high speeds, but the eyes barely notice it. From a window seat, clouds appear to drift by at a slow pace, which can trick the eye and the body into misapprehending how fast time is actually moving. I have experienced this entire year in that same manner: careening through it in a fast-moving shell, but seeing and feeling it in slow motion.
Part of the problem is that there is too much happening on any given day. President Donald Trump has helped create these conditions, with his tumultuous presidency, his tweets and incendiary soundbites, the press briefings where reporters work to untangle frequent lies. Part of it has to do with how people get their news, and how often they experience it as a warped extension of entertainment.
As a result, it can feel like time itself is at the mercy of our shared political chaos. There have been many serious pieces written about the unhappy effects of consuming too much media and living at the mercy of news alerts on our phones. But the possibility of completely checking out of the news has been equally untenable. So many people I know are trying to find a balance that doesn't seem to exist: figuring out how to step away from the news for long enough that you can return to it in a slow immersion, and not an overwhelming blur.
The moments when nothing devastating is happening have been rare, and my body and brain have been trained to always look around the corner for the next damaging thing. This degree of interior labor makes a day feel long and a week feel longer. And the sheer number of major national events that unfold in a single day can mess with memory in a way that makes a year feel literally endless.
The long-term effect that I'm most concerned about is losing a proper relationship with time and urgency. Late in 2018, the government released a dire report on climate change. It was not particularly new information, as dire reporting on climate change had been appearing for the entire year. But the government's most recent report made my fear of the future seem more paralyzing. I feel most anxious about climate news because of the people who say we have a long time to change the world as we know it, and how easily I can get tricked into agreeing that there is time, nothing but time—because a year now lasts forever.
And perhaps this is the plan, after all. This presidency is built to wear people down, to the point where citizens are flummoxed about what is or isn't worth caring about, or fighting for, or what they have the energy to consume. I joke with friends about how long this year has felt because I don't yet know how to talk about what I fear may be the real impact of experiencing time in this way, and how a country internalizes that feeling: What it does to the brain to imagine itself among slowly drifting clouds while the body is actually careening deeper into a rapidly growing darkness.