The Foreign Rational

The world seen through the eyes of a life-long nomad

Just a couple of weeks ago, the sakura trees were in bloom, announcing with their rosy petals the coming of a new spring.

Wait, or was it a month ago?

Or maybe several months?

Every morning I wake up to the same routine. Pull myself out of bed. Stretch. Throw on some clothes. Switch on the coffee machine.

In my morning torpor, the buzzing of the coffee grinder seems as loud as a jet engine. Or at least, I think that’s how loud jet engines were.

How much time has passed since I flew home for Christmas?

I turn on the news. It’s the same as yesterday. The same as last week. Infections and deaths are on the rise. In some places it’s worse than ever; in others it’s getting better. Everyone needs more equipment. More testing. Flatten the curve.

Oh look, Trump came up with a new lie. He’s been on television an awful lot lately.

Wait, has he?

How long is “lately?”

After my morning routine comes my afternoon routine. In a heartbeat, it’s already evening. Another day. Another week. A slice of life just whisked away.

They say time goes by faster as you age.

I must’ve aged 100 years since this pandemic started.

Using routine as a coping mechanism

Everywhere we look, the new coronavirus is snatching lives and livelihoods. I’m one of the lucky ones. The virus has so far left me safe. But not unscathed.

In my sliver of reality, the disease has infected my perception of time.

At first, I refused to acknowledge it. Days were flying by, but to me that meant things would get back to normal quicker. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

I’ve been working from home for close to two months. In isolation for one. Yet in my memory, it all blends together. One big chunk of time gone by. Once this is over, will there be anything to remember? Or just regret for moments lost?

My mind has always been my most prized possession—I do what I can to take care of it. Early on in the outbreak, I started looking up ways to preserve my mental health. One of the most common recommendations was to set up a routine. Establish some semblance of normalcy to cope with the anxiety of the abnormal.

So I did. Every morning, the stretching, the coffee, the news. Then work, lunch. Maybe a light walk, weather permitting.

Afternoons start with more work. Another coffee break. Finish up. Dinner.

Evenings usually mean Netflix. Maybe YouTube. Then workout. Shower. Read a book. Sleep.

I was proud of my routine. I hadn’t done daily workouts in years. It feels great. While the true heroes are out there fighting the virus, I’m in here flattening my curves.

I’ve read more books in the first quarter of 2020 than in all of 2019. Dostoyevsky, Murakami, Shakespeare, Kafka—I’ll feel slightly less lost the next time a pedant name-drops them on me.

Not having to commute to work means I get at least eight hours of sleep every day. My work has slowed down a bit, so I’m avoiding stress. I’m relaxed, following the health experts’ advice to a tee.

The problem is, in my perception at least, time seems uninterested in the relaxing bits.  

The brain thrives on new stimuli

Doing the same thing every day saves mental energy by allowing me to go through time on autopilot. I live, but I don’t experience, nor do I really remember. Why remember today if I did the exact same thing yesterday?

Research in psychology shows that time is perceived differently by different people and at different points in life. Remember how when you were a kid, what the weekend meant? It was a time of adventure, of possibility, of fun.

What are weekends now? Rest areas on a long desert highway.

One explanation for the speeding up of time is that perception is based on the volume and nature of past experience. When you’re nine years old, that next year of your life well be one tenth of everything you’ve ever seen, felt and done. Now it’s what, a thirtieth? A fiftieth? A hundredth, if you’re lucky?

But there’s more to time than youth.

While we can’t do much about aging, we do still have some power over time. Why did my twenty-sixth year, when I moved to Japan and started a new life, feel longer than my twentieth, when I was cruising through my second year of university? It was a smaller percentage of my lived experience, so that can’t be it.

The answer is new stimuli. New experiences mean more exercise for our brains; more new information to process. Seeing or feeling something for the first time grounds us in the now, stretching the present.

Our experiencing self gets to play with new and intriguing information. Our remembering self finally has a fresh, valuable memory that stands out against the tedium of the routine. A win-win for the soul.

Putting my mind to work

I’ve found breaking the routine particularly important during COVID-19, given how small my world has become.

Since I started working from home, a lot of the stimuli I took for granted are no longer there. No weird person on the subway. No trying out a new restaurant for lunch. No chance to talk to that cute girl at the office.

Casual social interactions now take a whole new level of planning. It’s hard to bump into someone for a pleasant chat when every conversation needs to be scheduled via Outlook. There are no nice unexpected encounters on Zoom.   

Meanwhile, at home, my horizon stands unchanging. Every day the same scenery, save perhaps the slow pile-up of recyclables I’ve grown too lazy to take out.

A routine isn’t a solution to this severe hypo-stimulation. On the contrary, it slathers repetition onto the monotonous. So instead, I’m trying out a new coping mechanism. I’ve decided to do at least one hour’s worth of one new thing every day.

It can be working on a new skill: studying Mandarin; taking an online course in astrophysics; or, as I see many people doing online, learning how to bake.  

It can be creating something; setting up a website; building a tree house; or in my case, writing more articles.

It can also be much simpler: any activity that will allow my senses to experience novelty. Taking a socially-distanced stroll around a new part of town. Getting a new kind of food delivered. Listening to a compilation of new kinds of music.

I’m confident in my creativity. I’ll be able to think of more new things to do than there will be days left in isolation. Perhaps this quest for novelty will even remain a staple of my post-corona life. For now, it’s still hard to say. All I know is that I’m already enjoying the mental exercise of thinking up new things to do.

And with my brain hard at work, I can feel time passing by just a little bit slower.

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