It’s the first week of February. I spent an early morning last weekend with a cup of coffee in my hand, staring at the two-page spread layout of my February calendar, getting an overview of my writing deadlines, dates for online courses, and virtual speaking engagements. Almost all the little squares were filled with pencil markings, words spilling over the lines. It was tiring just looking at it.
Yes, I was one of those who actually purchased a 2021 planner. At the start of the year, social media was filled with jokes and memes about the futility of investing in one — what was the point, given how 2020 turned out? Perhaps it was the optimist in me that felt compelled to buy mine, still hopeful that things might return to some semblance of normalcy before the year’s end.
Over the pandemic, our sense of time has come to feel more and more like that famous 1931 Salvador Dalí painting, “The Persistence of Memory”, in which curvaceous, drooping clocks adorn a barren, dreamlike landscape. The work seems morosely to suggest that chronological time has nothing left to offer us — an idea intensified by the dead tree and flesh-coloured human-sea creature (believed by critics to represent Dalí himself) stretched out on a rock like a beached animal, weighted down by one of the melting timepieces.
Something profound has happened during this pandemic. Without our usual markers of the passage of time, our scheduled appointments, vacation days and planned social events, we’ve had to rethink how we measure out our lives — an unexpected but worthwhile beckoning.
My own pre-pandemic work schedule consisted of constant plane-hopping across countries, and slipping in and out of speaking or teaching engagements. Practically everything about how I spent my time shifted overnight. Once I found myself sitting still without anywhere to be physically, it gave me room to think about how I’d been spending my time.
I thought back to another season of my life, when I was more intentional than I am now about following the Catholic liturgical year. I remembered how that alternate sense of time made me respond to my life and relationships with more attention. The seven calendar weeks of Easter, for example, were marked in my mind by the symbolic idea of resurrection. My days became imbued with an expectation that opportunities for new life might just interrupt my scheduled plans.
The ancient Greeks had two understandings of time, chronos and kairos, both of which we adhere to and are already familiar with, even if not by name. Both are valuable, but one rarely gets enough attention.
Chronos time is simply chronological time, how we measure our days and our lives quantitatively. We’ve been marking and setting our lives by some form of chronological time for centuries. The Egyptians and the Babylonians had systems for dividing the days into measured segments. But in a rich 2019 Aeon article about the history of timekeeping, Paul Kosmin, professor of ancient history at Harvard, notes that it was only in the 4th-century Seleucid Era that people started marking public time in irreversible and ascending numerical order.
Before that, there was no uniform way to measure past time or to speak of future time. Communities noted the passage of time independently, based on their geographical locations and determining factors such as political regimes, agricultural rhythms, religious offices and events and wars. If we were to imagine applying this to the present-day US, last year might be marked as, “In the final year of the rule of Trump”, or “In the season of the killing of George Floyd”. Or globally, we might talk about “the time of self-isolation,” or, “the season preceding the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
When the world started keeping measurable and predictable time, the basis by which we organised and planned our lives shifted. It became more orderly and efficient, yes, but I can’t help but wonder what we might have lost alongside what we gained.
Once we are able to measure time quantitatively, it enables us to create new patterns around how we relate to it. Like anything quantifiable, we learn quickly how to worry about whether or not we have enough of it. If our cultural lexicon is anything to go by — “Don’t waste time”, “Time waits for no one”, “Time is of the essence”, “Time is money” — we are afraid of losing it, running out of it, or being consumed and ravaged by it. We tend to think of time as something that works against us, rather than for us, an element of life that takes rather than gives. Days marked only by chronos time bind us in ways that can feel restrictive, demanding and consuming.
We get the word “chronology” from the Greek word khronos, which many conflate with Kronos, the Greek titan god who was so afraid of being supplanted by his children that he devoured them alive. Francisco Goya painted his terrifying artistic depiction of this myth, “Saturn Devouring His Son”, in the dark days towards the end of his life. Chronos time, it seems, will eat us alive if we do not constantly keep track of it and try to control it.
But how do we account for the qualitative time of our lives? How do we honour kairos time, what the Ancient Greeks understood as the most opportune time for something new? The concept has its origins in the practice of Greek archery, representing the moment when the archer finds the perfect opening to shoot his arrow and make his target. But Kairos (or Caerus) was also the Greek god of opportunity. He had wings on his feet and darted quickly about, but if one were alert, one could catch him by the long lock of hair that hung over his otherwise bald head.
To grasp kairos time we have to release some of our anxiety around chronos time. During these past months, I’ve been trying to follow the daily internal pulls I have to go outside and take a walk. With the demands of work pressing down upon me, it can be tempting to ignore that invitation. And when I do set out, I often have to catch myself from speed-walking, still so anxious about getting back to my work in time.
It takes my focused attention to the present moment to slow down and embrace the length of the walk. When this happens, I tend to catch some new and unexpected insight, either from something I see and encounter in nature, or a thought that just opens up out of nowhere. Whatever it is, either solves a writing problem I’d been thinking about, or spurs a new train of thought.
We all have work and family responsibilities and commitments that require a strict adherence to schedules and plans. But I think we can learn to keep time in a way that not only makes sure we accomplish our ongoing professional goals and meet our responsibilities, but that also keeps us open to being steered by life in ways we may not have anticipated, that keeps us discerning enough to read our environment and to adapt accordingly.
A kairos moment can open up anywhere, for any length of chronological time. It can be as minute as recognising that sudden need to take a walk in the fresh air to clear your head, trusting that such a simple act of self-care is not a waste of time, but is affordable time. Meditation, leisurely reading, walks, staring out the window, fishing, gazing at art, dancing, slow cooking, conversations of intentional listening, acting in the moment when your intuition speaks, these are all things that keep you attentive, open and in tune in the present moment, where opportunity resides, in the here and now.
I wonder, if we were more habituated to living in kairos time, would we be more likely to consider that time is not something to be afraid of? Can we begin with the possibility that the present moments and seasons of our lives have purpose beyond what calendars and packed schedules might dictate? There’s something freeing about dropping our full hands before kairos. We should consider learning to stand in our present circumstances and finding the courage to ask, “What is time for?” And then to take the time to listen and to act.
Enuma Okoro is a writer and speaker
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