On Time and Its Many Guises

20121022-211713.jpgI started wearing a wristwatch recently. It is nothing special, just one of those models that is man-sized but styled for women. But I like it a lot: it’s a metallic rose-gold band with a standard, not digital, face, just a little large for my small wrist. It fits much more like a bracelet than a watch as a result, and I like to layer other gold-tone bracelets with it. But even on its own, it’s pleasantly heavy.

I started wearing it because I was tired of digging my cell phone out of my bag to look at the time, pawing through notebooks, gadgets, makeup bags, and whatever scraps I’ve accumulated over the day just to get to it. (I know I shouldn’t have so much stuff in my bag, but I can’t help it: I’m like a turtle, only I carry my office with me everywhere.) Besides, wearing a watch is an opportunity for an elegant gesture: I like pulling up a sleeve and delicately flexing a wrist to accomplish such a mundane task as checking the time.

Beyond fashion and the theater of self-presentation, however, I noticed that wearing a watch has softened my relationship to time. There’s something gentler about seeing non-digital time. I’m trying to think of a situation in life where knowing the time was exactly 8:48 was useful. Honestly, I can’t think of any — knowing that it’s about 10 till is enough.

I’ve been thinking about time lately. I throttle through my days, and at night sometimes I lie in my bed and feel my body still racing through the minutes. Like existential jet lag, in a way: my mind is a million paces ahead trying to anticipate the next hour’s challenges, and underneath it all my spirit is holding on quietly for me to sit down for a moment and let it catch up. I imagine it like a hedgehog, scurrying along trying to catch up to some much quicker, nervier creature — a deer, maybe — and just as it reaches its destination, the deer is off again, racing through the days. My mind’s pace is quicker than my spirit’s, and sometimes the split feels problematic in a way that worries me.

I often take a few minutes to breathe deeply and center myself, but sometimes I worry it will take more than a few minutes and some fresh air to really address what could be a deeper issue, this strange and subterranean feeling that time has become this dictator in my life. And it’s true what they say: the older you get, the faster time seems to go, often distressingly so. Is it really October now? Wasn’t it just January? What will I have in my hands after all this time has passed? Just a memory of it passing through me like a wind, a few handfuls of accomplishments, a passel of memories?

I go through so quickly through my days that my memories feel thinner, paper-like, flimsy, like barely registered imprints on a fragile sheet. I can see why people get so obsessed with taking pics for Facebook and Instagram: at least there’s a record that something happened, even though it seemed like it was happening to someone else, or a ghost. I worry that I’m becoming a ghost in my own life.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly isn’t right about my experience of time. I think it’s partly because I’m getting older and feel the press of time a lot more acutely, especially being an aunt and watching my nieces and nephews grow up so quickly. And the discourse surrounding time isn’t exactly rich: we talk of time in terms of quantities, schedules, priorities, management. It is so boring, and so inadequate when talking about time as a dimension that gives meaning to our lives.

But then I read something somewhere about the Greek words for time, and something opened up for me. Basically, the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos, both of which conceptualize time in very different ways. Chronos means time as measured and portioned off in minutes, hours, days, years. It is obviously the root of the word “chronology,” and therefore refers to time as a sequence. Chronos is the time of calendars and deadlines.

Kairos, however, is different. It means “supreme moment,” an indeterminate period in which something special happens. It is opportunity, kismet, carpe diem — a qualitative way of referring to time, not quantitative. Kairos is like when you are doing something so absorbing, so wonderful that you’re completely absorbed and you don’t even realize hours have passed.

I remember a lightbulb in my head going off when I read the distinctions between chronos and kairos time. Chronos time is like time in an hourglass: each grain is a minute, a day, a year, a decade. You can sort the grains into different buckets, labelled with “family,” “work,” “friends,” “love,” or what have you. That sounds much more serene and orderly than it feels, however: I imagine myself more like trying to arrange buckets to catch sand falling from a leaky roof, trying to quickly rotate different buckets so I don’t lose a grain — and then another leak springs, and then I have to rotate buckets for that as well, and suddenly my life resembles a bad screwball comedy. That’s what time feels like when you manage a million priorities and multi-task.

If chronos time is grains of sand, then kairos actually conceptualizes time as a spatial dimension. I imagine it as a space you can fill with whatever you want. Some weeks feel like a hot, barren desert livened with oasis and mirages; some feel like a wide open field. What shape it takes and how you choose to fill it up with is up to you: a peaceful wood cabin, an amusement park, a pasture of horses, a city. If kairos time is a subjective experience, it can feel like anything. It is elastic, malleable: it’s nothing like the inexorable inflexibility and relentless forward march of chronos time.


Since I read that, I’ve been thinking of how to shift my experience of time from one of chronos to more kairos. How can I stop measuring out the sands of time and just let it be a space to fill with delicious experiences to savor? How can I stop feeling like I’ve been shot like a cannon through the day, hurling to get stuff done — and instead sort of just float, enjoying the sights of the world passing by?

I know we can talk about things like shaving things off a To-Do list, and maybe getting rid of those kind of lists altogether, focusing on the need to create actual space in life for experiences to happen — and let go of the need to exert control all the time altogether. And yes, maybe I should be falling back on my Buddhist heritage and meditate a little more. And wearing a watch that I love helps a little, really: it’s much more of a pleasure to check the time now, and I can’t help but think it makes a tiny difference.

But I have a feeling the balance of chronos and kairos is a lifelong thing, changing with circumstances and priorities — and I have learn to be better and faster about recognizing when one conception of time is winning out over the other. Because the truth is, you probably need both dimensions of time to be a successful human being in some way or another. Chronos makes sure we don’t waste time since it’s not a limitless commodity, but kairos means we enjoy it. One’s the pace of the mind and the other of the heart, but they work together to make the most of the time we have on the planet.

In truth, it’s not that hard to cross over from chronos to kairos: a deep breath, a look up at the sky, a willingness to be fully and completely present in a moment, and you’re there. The question is the willingness of effort to do it again and again, until it become second nature. I don’t know why it can be so hard, but it is, especially since so many things demand your time and attention, fraying both at the ends. So I’m hoping to fray a little less and live a little more, moment by moment — even if it means turning the evil of having to check the time into an elegant, catlike gesture.

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