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Time Anxiety

Updated: Jan 27

I’ve been trying to decipher an anxiety that frequently debilitates me. It’s an anxiety about time.

If I was in therapy I imagine we’d discuss how it burdens and creates a restlessness within me. How it makes me dart from one activity to another. And in my 20s from one career, city or relationship to another. Why I still struggle to relax or sit still. In one of her cookbooks, the food writer Nigella Lawson calls it “terminally fidgety”. Which sounds rather cute for what it really is: it’s an anxiety about the time we have left and what we can squeeze out of it.

The problem with time-anxiety is that, in your hope to fill life with meaning, you in fact do the opposite: you stuff it with a dizzying pursuit of tick-lists and cross-out-able tasks, when what you truly desire is to experience the slow, steady ballast of immersion. To macerate yourself in something so significant that any accomplishment is incidental.

You could argue that time-anxiety is a symptom of the period we live in, but I’ve experienced it for over 20 years. Through a much slower era, with its whir of a floppy disc, where the word ‘scroll’ was still a noun relating to parchment.

Up until I handed over my dissertation, then lay on the campus grass looking up at the blue sky, time-anxiety did not exist for me. Every moment had pointed towards something inevitable, usually printed on quality paper with an embossed gold seal on it. I had happily followed a route encouraged by others, which honestly seemed to suit me. But as soon as I lay on that grass looking up into the great, blue beyond I became paralysed by a lack of itinerary. 21 years old and time still seemed infinite, but I immediately sensed that somewhere an invisible button had been pressed and the counting down of hours had commenced.

It wasn’t a death button back then. It was an achievement button. It had unhealthy elements of comparison to it and well-wishes from a notebook in which other hopeful young people had promised me I would ‘go places’ and ‘do things’.

For years I remained wholly uncommitted in every part of my life. I peered through the doors of different industries. Substituted old boyfriends for new ones. Time was infinite and I could not yet commit to a single place or person. I was still just peering because nothing and no-one felt like that steady ballast I needed. And although time felt infinite, I was just starting to hear the low tick-tock of it somewhere in the background.

The thing is, writing has always gifted me exactly what I am seeking: the vital and joyous and meaningful. I should know by now that anytime I feel a surge of time-anxiety coming for me, to sit and write: back of an envelope, a laptop, straight into my phone. As soon as words tumble out, time always shifts to a different dimension where seconds and minutes and hours are entirely irrelevant. A day writing never feels wasted.

Yet it’s the lists I instinctively reach for first. And although Life Admin never does go away, it's ticking-off should be a fleeting tackle rather than a fully-fledged marathon.

In my 20s I learnt that the easiest way to cover up the tick-ticking was to either abandon myself or excessively control myself. I did this with drink, dancing, food: everything fast and dizzying so that there wasn’t chance for anyone, let alone myself, to review whether the elapse of time had been meaningful.

Inevitably I ended up talking with a dangly-earringed therapist who asked me why I felt I hadn’t achieved anything. Why I was so hard on myself. She made me write down the things I was proud of on A4 card, to look back on during bouts of inadequacy. But nothing looked like real achievement to me - just a stack of peering and exploring. I had committed to absolutely nothing. These days I'd suggest that the only 'achievement' in your 20s ought to be an even longer list of peering and exploring.

By your 40s the time elapse feels real. The journalist Miranda Sawyer referred to the term “death-maths” when she had a child at 43. At one point I began counting potential decades remaining on fingers. The counting didn't take long. I wondered to myself, how are people in their 80s not paralysed by time-anxiety?

The great irony of course is that the longer I plunge myself in panic, the less time there is for joy. For magic. For that great intoxication of meaning.

In astrology, the planet Saturn represents a limit on time: a beginning and an end; a birth followed by a death. But I recently learnt about another approach to time through the Indian goddess, Kali. The limitations of the physical world do not apply to her. In fact, she is said to stand outside the constraints of time and transcend it.

And so it is with writing... if I can only remember it.

September 2021

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