Has this quote (attributed to Howard Wilson, although even he wasn’t sure when he’d said it) ever been more apt than for the past 7 days? The way time seems to be messing around (has it only been a week?) has brought back an awfully sad memory for me. There are many theories about why sometimes we see things in a way that feels like time is running away or passing annoyingly slowly; research has looked at possible contributing factors such as age, metabolism, depression, even body temperature. But before I talk about my own experience when time did some weird things, let’s consider this time last week – a happier time.
My husband came home from work early. He knew how eager I was to place my vote for the so-called Bremain/Brexit referendum and we’d agreed to go to our polling station together. As we walked to the church hall around the corner, bright evening sunshine danced in puddles left over from the day’s torrential rain. There was a cheery, English, village fete-like feeling as we waited to place our ‘X’s. A stooping, elderly couple in front of us tenderly supported each other by the elbow as they shuffled forward. A young nurse smiled sweetly at me as I left the booth while she moved up the queue to take my place. I felt alive with energy – power even – with that simple act. How wonderful, I said to my husband, that we live in a country where we are all allowed to have our say without fear of vindication for voting the ‘wrong’ way. Think of those countries where people are hacked by machetes or shot for doing so, or even for refusing to vote at all. In our country we are all equal and respectful of each other, I said. What a great system we have.
Then in a few short hours on Friday morning everything slipped away. Millions of people lost a vote, the country lost a prime minister, politicians lost face, a nation lost its reputation, savings and investments were decimated as the economy slithered off a cliff – for a time, at least. So many facts changed in a chain-reaction of instants. Emotions boiled over. Some people revelled, others were shell-shocked and a bunch tried to work out what had just happened and asked if it could be undone. Online news feeds couldn’t be refreshed fast enough to keep up.
But with the arrival of the weekend came a vacuum of information from the people the nation had hoped would give some answers. Time stretched out. In the absence of any new news, media outlets and social media contributors chewed over the same scant pieces of information and played out scenario after painful scenario for what might come next.
The following days brought more surprises and disappointments. Who’s standing, who’s ruling themselves out, who’s resigning, who’s staying put, who’s playing the game, who’s giving it up. Who’s been lying. Who’s pointing fingers, who’s laughing at whom. The same patterns were being repeated in political parties, in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the European championship, in the European parliament.
I’ve been coaching people this week who really, REALLY, needed to vent. It’s not at all unusual to use a coaching session to get past something that’s stopping personal progress or effectiveness, but it’s unexpected for me to see the same issue in session after session. There have been tears – a lot – and anger. Clients have poured out their guilt, fear, sadness, self-righteousness, confusion. And I’ve heard the same two phrases over and again. “Time seemed to stand still,” for those reflecting on their shock and disappointment, versus “I need everything to slow down – or rewind back to before. It’s too much to take in and happening too fast.” Isn't it incredible how time seems elastic in periods of stress? You can be watching the clock unable to believe it’s only 5 minutes later than last time you checked, or look up from your desk and it’s dark outside when you could swear you only just had your lunch.
So I remember how strangely time behaved on the worst day of my life. In the instant I got the news that my son was dead, everything around me went into a freeze-frame and I was the only person moving at normal speed. Then it went into reverse – it was me that was crawling and the world around me was rushing past at super-fast pace. Nothing was normal. It took me an hour to do a normal thing like put my hand through my jacket sleeve. I unwrapped a new packet of cigarettes, then couldn't fathom why it was now empty when I couldn't remember smoking a single one. I remember thinking at one point that I wanted it to be 5 years in the future. I wanted the ability to skip all this ‘now’-ness, this unspeakable, physical, white-hot pain and jump forward to a time when surely this fact would be something that I could now bear, that was part of me, that had been absorbed.
But of course there is no skipping forward, round or under. Time and emotions have to be experienced, moment by mysterious, life-filled moment. The future is always coming at us and we can only experience what’s happening in this very moment. Feeling angry, sad, scared or excited about what’s coming next is normal, natural and necessary. There is strength to be found in all of this, as individuals and together. It will become part of our personal and collective experience, to make sense of and grow from.