A World of Kairos

I’m going to get extremely metaphysical here by first discussing something my kid put up his nose. Bear with me.

My four-year-old son stuck a snail shell up his nose sometime last week while my husband was vacuuming the stairs and I was engaged in a particularly productive writing session. The striped shell was so deeply lodged in the soft-tissue of his sinuses that, despite all our best attempts to fish it out at home, we had to take him into a local pediatrician’s office to remove it. There were tears from him, and lots of anxiety from me, not least of which stemmed from the increased risk of going to any health office during the heat of the COVID-19 crisis. Trust me, we tried everything to avoid leaving the house.

This morning, after breakfast, my husband and I were discussing the event, and neither one of us could remember the day on which it occurred. We were only reasonably certain that it happened some time this past week, but we could even be wrong about that, too. This rather significant event, which will be funny once we are sure that no virus traveled home with us, should have been easily remembered. ‘Oh, that was at 4 PM last Tuesday,’ I should be able to say.

For weeks now, we have been sitting around the house, gardening, crafting, reading, and generally getting on each other’s nerves, and a moment like that should stick out in our memories. And yet, as I write this- I couldn’t tell you which day it occurred if you put a gun to my head. In fact, there are a lot of important things that happened this season which, without the aid of my text-message history, or a quick internet search, are lost in a haze of ‘recently.’

My young son’s proclivity for nasal probing brought to light a very metaphysical realization: Most of us are now living awkwardly in the world of Kairos.

The Greeks had two words to describe the passing of time, kronos and kairos. Kronos is the idea of measured time, hours minutes, weeks, days. Kronos tells us exactly how much time has passed, how much we have left relative to some end point. It is the ticking clock, the early morning alarm, the crossed out calendar days until ‘Something Important.’

Kairos is… the other kind of time. It is the time that passes for children when they are fully engaged in building, or playing, or reading. Kairos is the immeasurable quality of time as it proceeds at a different pace for every season of our lives. The agony of time passing in anticipation, and the quick-skipping pace of time passing in joy or inspiration. Kairos is the reminder that we really don’t understand all that much about how time affects life at all.

COVID time is Kairos time. 

We don’t know when exactly it will end- try imagining ‘back to normal’ and see what I mean. It has plucked most of us from our rigorously scheduled weeks, children from counting the minutes of a school day, and the world from having any kind of certain deadline. We live day to day, minute to minute without any clear memory of those exact days and minutes, wholly consumed by our chosen fascination (or drudgery or anxiety) of each moment. 

Because we do not know when this will all be over, we cannot measure or adjust our behavior based on how much of this strange time is left. We have to make up completely new rules for how we pass a day- each household’s rule looking different as they weigh the needs and priorities of the moment.

Most of us give up on figuring out which day of the week it is, trusting our calendar alerts to let us know if we have a work ‘thing’ coming up (for those with jobs). Our needs of the moment have largely erased our need for a schedule.

How many hours did it take to dig the garden? Binge that show? How long have we been inside? When was the last time you went grocery shopping or ordered takeout? With a few exceptions, our immediate responses to these questions is a sort of ‘meh’ or ‘a while’ or ‘too long.’ Because it doesn’t actually matter in the least. The exception to this is, of course, Zoom meetings, which may, in fact supersede the need for any other kind of time-measuring device very soon.

 I know that I have experienced a frayed relationship with the certain hours of kronos, as I try to remember how the last two (three? four?) weeks have fluttered by in a wonderful and terrible haze of real life, distant anxieties and personal purpose. I am cradling this kairos season as a gift right now, when in the recent past (I truly have no concept of how far back), I was bitterly lamenting the uncertainty I had just been forced to embrace. No wonder some people are feeling so called to creative endeavors- Kairos was the mysterious god of the moment, tipping fates, nudging the muses. Why worry if this dream of yours is a ‘waste of time’ when there’s no way to measure exactly what percentage of time is involved in the activity? And no wonder many people are struggling with crippling depression and fear. How can you talk yourself out of worrying constantly, when there is no promise to make about when it will all be over? Without a deep faith in some higher benevolent power, these days can be maddening. There is no playbook for this, no time to beat, no fourth quarter buzzer to hold out for.

We are the first people in the modern age, since the invention of clocks and the coordination of ‘time zones’ with this opportunity. Without any certainty of the future, without knowing how long we must ‘endure,’ we continue to live and experience time in our own unique way. It is a precious resource, immeasurable and therefore- entirely more precious. There is weight to the choices we make, defining a season of our lives only by the moment we are living every day, all day, for the next…few weeks. Or is it months?


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