Another kind of time.

December 3, 2017

Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs sometimes functions with the punctilious that title implies. And when it does so, I doff my cap in professional respect.

 

My cap was well doffed this year when they emailed acknowledgement of my tax return because they state it arrived at a time of 12:45:42.782; that is, they nailed it to a thousandth of a second.

 

Not much happens in my world in a thousandth of a second.

 

I calculate that, when careering down the motorway at the legal speed limit, in a thousandth of a second I manage to career only another three centimetres, which is half the length of my pinky ( I would like to stress at this point to non-native English speakers that 'pinky' is an informal term for the little finger).

 

Fortunately for Danny Boy, his 'significant other' was nothing like as punctilious as HMRC. Her sense of punctuality was almost frivolous by comparison. "Oh come ye back when summer's in  the meadow", she would sing, "or when the valley is hushed and white with snow". No atomic clock for her.

 

A lot has happened to time in the time between the future Mrs Boy's time and ours (I admit the song was only written in 1913, but please cut me some slack here).

 

The advent of the railways had fundamentally altered how clocks were set, because they required timetables that ran to a nationally agreed clock. Until then, clock-setting was a local affair determined by sunrise or noon shadow.  'Railway Time' also demanded the accuracy implicit in train travel. The result was not so much that the train arrived on time, but that you knew exactly how late it was.

 

As electronic communications became more commonplace, nationally and internationally agreed time measurements became more important. In the satellite age, the exactitude of such measurements is critical.

 

Essentially, our technologies have both enabled and required us to measure time with an accuracy that is now scarcely within our comprehension. Life runs by the clock. And the cog of punctuality meshes beautifully with the cog of productivity. Time measurement now measures more than time. Because time is now, also, money.

 

But is there any other kind of time available to us, other than the chronological variety? Or has our history proved that the only alternatives lie within how accurately chronological time is measured?

 

The Greek root of the word itself is chronos and the Greeks appear to have used it in much the same way as we do; sequential time. They even personified him in a way still recognisable to us through Old Father Time.

 

But the Greeks, being the Greeks, were much more comprehensive in their concepts and consequently in their vocabulary.  And so they also recognised a different kind of time. One that operates very differently. It was personified in the form of a young man (see photo) and his name was Kairos.

 

 

Kairos, by his very nature, is much harder to define; "a period or season; a moment of indeterminate time in which a significant event happens".  "Indeterminate time". What an oxymoron to modern ears.

 

Kairos' roots were associated with archery and weaving. In archery, it was the moment when the arrow had been drawn back far enough to be able to penetrate the target when released. In weaving, it was the moment when the shuttle could be passed back through the threads on the loom.

 

From there, kairos was adopted as a term in rhetoric; "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved". In our age, influence has passed from rhetoric to the sound bite, but we can recognise this use of 'kairos' in the performance of every stand-up comedian. "Comic timing" is not determined by the clock.

 

In the Greek New Testament kairos usually meant the appointed time in the purpose of God. And God was clearly a fan of it, given it appeared eight-six times there, as opposed to chronos' fifty-four.

 

In modern Greek, 'kairos' evolved to mean 'weather'. Of course, such semantics do not alter how time, or times, operate. Any more than the absence of the term from English absents it from our experience.

 

But our culture affords respect only to what can be named. We have elevated language from being a tool that describes reality to being the arbitrator of what is real.  Kairos is not part of the conversation and In his absence, we are left solely in the company of Chronos, and Chronos is a Company Man. The clock is ticking. Time is money. How much money? Someone will be able to tell you, and maybe even down to a thousandth of a second. We are surrounded by devices that measure chronos more accurately than we can and we dance to their tune because we are obliged to do so, After all, punctuality is a polka that all of society is performing and there are consequences for being out of step.

 

But when you want to check in on kairos; when you want to know "Is this the opportune moment?", where can you look? Its own definition says it is "a moment of indeterminate time" which makes determining it something of a challenge.

 

The answer is that while you can wear a chronograph, you are a kairograph. Kairography means listening to what your gut is telling you and paying heed to your own intuition. 

 

This is not some spiritual adventure into wishful thinking. This is quite literally a visceral thing. Just because it is not open to objective measurement does not mean it is intangible or impracticable.

 

But like any other skill, it fades with lack of use. It is only rekindled through the slow and delicate work of paying attention to the body and respecting all of it as part of the thinking process. For some, this requires an element of faith. After all, some things have to be believed to be 'seen'.

 

For me, Alexander Technique helped blow on the embers of a sense of kairos that had grown cold. It gave me both the tools to pay closer attention to my whole self and the courage to believe what I was feeling. I have not lost my respect for chronos, but I understand better that quote attributed to Gandi; "There is more to life than increasing its speed". I have more faith now in kairos; in when it is the right moment to do something.

 

In our society that is a brave thing to do. If things don't work out, there is neither a set of statistics nor a consensus of opinion to back you up.

 

But any fool can read a clock. And many fools do. It takes wisdom and experience to read yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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