Are You Stuck in a Time Loop Trope? How to Tell
As I reflect on myself in the early days of COVID-19, I realize I kicked off my Covidaggedon in a bit of a low-key World War II propaganda, planting my Victory Garden while rolling-up-my-sleeves-for-America mood.
Like the rest of the world, since then I’ve gone round and round the emotional roller coaster trying to settle on a feeling about all of this. Lost in the routine of school and work, Walmart curbside pickup orders, looming laundry piles, and overdue blog posts, it was easy to sweep those thoughts into a corner. But somehow, somewhere deep in my mind, I was certain this would be over soon if I just hung on a bit longer. Maybe a month or two, tops.
But time wore on, and hanging on just a bit longer started to feel a lot like hanging on to the side of a cliff for dear life, which would definitely be the way I die in an action movie because I have literally no upper arm strength.
Some days were different, like the day I realized I had to start limiting my news intake, the birthdays, and the end of Picard. But for the most part, it had started to feel like I was on repeat as I woke up, day after day, waking up the kids, having a cup of coffee, making my bed, feeding the cats, going nowhere.
And then it hit me that I was living my favorite sci-fi trope: the Groundhog Day-style time loop story.
The Groundhog Day Trope
I share said favorite sci-fi trope, AKA the Groundhog Day trope, with my 12-year-old son Arthur, and we’ve seen so many versions that we’re basically time loop story experts by now. You probably know the trope…it’s the one where the protagonist gets caught repeating the same day over and over again and has to realize they’re stuck and try to break out of the loop.
This is not to be confused with a causality loop or bootstrap paradox, where the POV character is trapped in a chain of events that circle back around and cause the original event to occur, which is the entire point of 12 Monkeys.
In the Groundhog Day loop, the same period of time, usually a day, repeats on a loop like a skipping record, usually resetting with a crisis event that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Every good sci-fi show has a version of the Groundhog Day story, and Arthur and I have seen most of them.
We love these stories because even though they’re all essentially the same plot, the story can be told in so many different ways. And in the end, it’s always about finding a way to live with a reality you have no control over.
I’ve watched my favorite time loop stories so many times that I even developed a theory: time loop story protagonists go through the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief model, similar to the Morrow-Kondos Five Stages of Quarantine Bra.
In the denial phase, POV characters don’t realize they’re in the loop at all or try to convince themselves it isn’t happening. Next, as they start to wake up to what’s going on, they get angry and start lashing out, which typically means burning through deaths since most time loop stories loop on a recurring death or catastrophic event.
They begin to feel hopeless, becoming depressed. In this stage, they simply go through the motions, allowing their despair to overcome them.
Eventually, they begin the bargaining part of the process, where they try to convince themselves they’re hallucinating or reach out to someone and get help ending the time loop. When that fails, they accept their fate and take advantage of the situation, learning a hobby or telling the girl they love her knowing they have all the time in the world and no lasting consequences for anything they do.
Once they’ve fully accepted their situation, that’s when they somehow unlock the key to the time loop, freeing themselves to move on but with the benefit of the wisdom gained while trapped in the loop.
The COVID-19 Time Loop
This week, I came to accept my own time loop. The moment I realized I had been in denial was when it occurred to me that quite a few people I know who have never had anxiety were having panic attacks while I wasn’t, despite being a lifelong Generalized Anxiety Disorder who suffers from chronic, debilitating panic attacks at times.
Like the time loop heroes waking up to the fact that they’re stuck on the same day as they start to notice little things they’ve seen before, I slowly started to realize the weird disconnect that I wasn’t suffering from serious anxiety but almost everyone else was.
This worried me because history has taught me that not coming to terms with something is a great way to bring everything crashing down around me at the worst possible time. I knew that wasn’t a good sign, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant.
I searched myself and realized that somehow, through all of the back patio family dinners and mask-sewing marathons, deep in the back of my mind, I had continued to believe this would all just suddenly be over in a couple of months like clouds parting after a storm.
But I also know logically that to achieve herd immunity, we would have to have something like 85 percent of people infected and then become well again. New York City, which has been battered with COVID-19 for the past month, is barely at 20 percent.
There’s also some evidence based on previous pandemics to indicate there will be a second or even third wave before the epidemic passes.
For my family, where asthma is a reality and nary an allergy season passes without a nebulizer-centric emergency, protecting our vulnerable family members means staying home and avoiding contact with the outside world as much as possible.
Even when most of the world starts going out more, armed with masks, sanitizer, and social distancing, it’s going to be a long time, maybe even a year or more, before most of us are truly free to enjoy ourselves in a crowd and go about our daily lives like we used to without worrying about another potentially devastating outbreak. For the foreseeable future, this lo-fi existence where time seems to almost stand still is our reality.
Just like every good time loop story, it’s time to accept the reality the world is stuck in and make the most of the situation.
Trying to Wake the Others
My intention isn’t to get into complicated questions of whether we should reopen or not, because from where I stand, there is no right answer. It’s starting to look an awful lot like any choice we make is a bad one, regardless of whether we stay open or remain closed. It seems to be a moot point anyway as state by state, the country gradually opens back up again.
I’m more interested in what we can control, and that’s our own reactions to the state of reality.
In every time loop story, there comes a moment where the POV character tries to reach out and convince those around her that linear time is glitching out. Eventually, she manages to convince someone, but because they’re all trapped in their own loop, the others are hard to convince.
We’re all POV characters in this time loop story, and the whole world is going through all the stages of grief at once as they slowly, gradually become aware that the record is skipping.
Most people are still in the denial stage. Most of our political leaders, party notwithstanding, are in this phase. If you are making big travel plans for a month or two from now when “everything lets up again,” you may be in the denial phase, and I don’t know if any of us can help it if we are.
You need only to turn to Facebook or the local news to see the anger stage in full effect. Protestors who had been protesting the lockdown are now angry with the request to wear masks and practice social distancing. This anger is boiling over in some places, placing essential workers at even greater risk than they’re already in.
Although it might seem like denial, I would argue that conspiracy theorists and hoaxers are actually in the bargaining stage. The denial stage tries to ignore a crisis entirely, whereas bargaining tries to find a way to understand it under terms of compromise. They can accept that something is happening, but they try to bargain that it’s either being overstated or things are not what they seem.
And then there’s the depression stage. I don’t believe we have to look too far to see depression. We’re all going through it more or less, whether it’s manifested in the haunting numbness we feel when we turn on the news or the meltdown we had when we realized we were out of coffee again.
The only stage that’s really missing is acceptance, and judging by every time loop story ever, it’s a hard one to arrive at. But it’s the most important stage because it’s the one where we learn to juggle, speak a second language fluently, and play in a band just before telling off our boss and kissing the girl. Acceptance is the phase where we’re able to find joy in the small moments of the time loop because we’re finally free from the hang-ups that overshadow our lives ordinarily, causing us to miss the tiny, sweet, lovely interactions and experiences that make life worthwhile and through this, we’re able to finally become our truest, kindest, transformed selves.
At least, that’s how it works out in fiction.
When time loop protagonists reach the acceptance stage, it’s not that they love where they’re at. It’s just that they’ve come to understand they can’t do a single thing in the universe to change their fate, and they know because they’ve tried everything imaginable over the course of their 273 iterations of the loop.
I don’t love the current reality. In fact, it utterly sucks. But no amount of being in denial or lashing out in anger will change the fact that there’s a highly contagious virus in the world that tends to wreck people with otherwise completely manageable chronic health conditions like asthma. And no viral origin story, however cathartic it feels to cast blame, will bring back the jobs or the lives that have been and continue to be lost.
But acceptance means our families can stop focusing on looking forward to an uncertain future or back to what-ifs and hypotheticals and instead find better ways to live in the present together. It means we can stop trying to fight the things we can’t change or placing our lives on hold. We’re through chasing do-overs and willing to accept our fates, however fluid and uncertain they are.
I’m not waiting anymore to start planning our vacation. But instead of driving out to California on a great American road trip like we’d planned, we’re going camping. We can’t get together with friends, so I’ve been planning Zoom meetings to catch up with each other and considering ways to spend time together outdoors but apart.
But instead of simply living with watered-down versions of what we wish we were doing, I’m going to take a page from the time loop trope protags and do the things I wouldn’t have ever done in normal linear time.
It’s time to think outside the box and find new ways to live for today just like Bill Murray did in Groundhog Day, so I’m revising my to-do list:
- Try out as many new restaurants as possible when we’re ordering take-out to support local business.
- Introduce the kids to my Required Movies and Required Music for Life lists.
- Participate in the GISH mini one-day stay-at-home scavenger hunt.
- Wear whatever I want every day with no regard for society’s standards.
- Try out a bunch of YouTube tutorials and adopt some new hobbies.
- Make a massive pillow fort.
- Finish an original work of fiction without self-condemnation.
- Learn about exercise, particularly upper arm exercise so I can survive hanging from my arms an action movie.
- Perfect my virtual party game: Stay-at-home spirit week? Virtual Nader-Con? The possibilities are limitless.
- Teach other people to write blogs and web content so they can work from home like me.
- Read tons of cool mangas and books online through the library or Scribd.
- Learn about the stock market.
- Try to find new and better side hustles.
- Rewatch all of my favorite time loop stories.
The thing about a time loop story is that once the POV character comes to accept their place in the loop, they often end up finding their way out of it unexpectedly, but better for the experience of having time away from linear time to work on their personal growth.
When we finally emerge, we do so willing to accept whatever fate the wheel of fortune lands not because we want to but because it’s the only way to make the best of a situation beyond our control.
Your Time Loop Viewing List
If this post has you wondering which stage of time loop acceptance you’re currently in, here’s a little homework for you. It’s not a comprehensive list, but these are some of my favorite time loop stories:
- Groundhog Day, Bill Murray film
- Triangle, sci-fi horror film
- The X-Files, “Monday”
- Supernatural, “Mystery Spot”
- Russian Doll, entire first season
- 12 Monkeys, “Lullaby”
- Dark Matter, “All the Time in the World”
- The Librarians, “And the Point of Salvation”
- Stargate SG-1, “Window of Opportunity”
- Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Cause and Effect”
- Star Trek: Voyager, “Coda”
- Star Trek: Discovery, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”
- Xena: Warrior Princess, “Been There, Done That”
What stage of the time loop story are you stuck in? Leave me a comment and tell me all about how you’re spending your time loop story days or share your favorite time loop story recommendations. Thanks for reading, be safe out there, and have a beautiful week on repeat.