Cultivating Kairos

I don’t know about you, but I found 2006 to be a pretty fallow year. It wasn’t a particularly bad year, though there were plenty of frustrations. The problem for me was that little seemed to move and a lot of exits signs flashed with no clear way out. But alongside the frustrations and the sense of stasis, I suspect that I will look back at 2006 as time when a lot of seeds were planted that will take time to reach fruition.
My metaphor for the year was my discovery in early December of the word ‘kairos’and my quest to find how it might relate to purposive drift. It began with a link from Pat Kane’s list on his Play Journal blog to an article by Edwin Bendyk. In it Bendyk describes how attitudes to work and time in Poland had changed dramatically over the last ten years, with those in work now working some of the longest hours in Europe.
What caught my imagination was the distinction he made, late in his article, between Chronos (or Kronos) – clock time – and Kairos – “Kairos is the time of the archer who releases an arrow that travels through the space of eternity, creating an event.”
Now I suspect I must have come across this distinction before without fully registering it. Anyway, there was enough of a prompt in his brief discussion of this idea to set me off looking for a fuller explanation of the concept of Kairos. What followed was a pretty dreary trawl through the web finding and discarding what seemed like a mountain of uninspiring references, with odd one or two seeming nearly there, but not what I was looking for.
This journey that seemed to be getting nowhere carried on over several days. Not full time, of course, because I had other stuff to be getting on with, but long enough to begin to think I was on a fruitless quest. I had nearly reached the point of giving up, when I came across this:
“…The Greeks had two words for time. One, kronos, refers to the quantitative aspect of time; to time as continuous and thus as measurable. That is the aspect of time with which we are most familiar – in our contemporary world we think of time as clock time and calendar time. History (at least according to the modernist world-view) unfolds in kronos time.
The other word for time, kairos, refers to time’s discontinuous, qualitative aspect; to time as differing in kind from one moment to the next. In kairos time there are kinds of time that are apples and others that are oranges. There is a time when the rain will fall from a cloud, a time to attack the enemy in a battle, a time to negotiate a truce, a point in time that is qualitatively different from the time in kronos just before. (In modern Greek kairos is translated as ‘‘opportunity.’’) When the book of Ecclesiastes was translated into Greek from the Hebrew Bible, kairos was the word used for time in the passage that became the text of a popular song in the 1960s: ‘‘A time to plant, a time to reap, a time to laugh, a time to cry . . .’’ (adapted from Ecclesiastes 3: 1–8).
Kairos is the time of tactical appropriateness, of shifting priorities and objects of attention from one qualitativel differing moment to the next. This is time as humanly experienced; ‘‘in the fulness of time,’’ the emergent ‘‘not quite yet,’’ the ‘‘now’’ that once arrived feels right. It is a brief strip of right time, marked at its beginning and end by turning points. It is not simply a particular duration in clock time. Yet every kairos strip of time has a location in kronos time.”

This passage is from the opening chapter of Frederick Erickson’s “Talk and Social Theory” my book of 2006 and probably of 2007 too. It is hard to describe the sense of pleasure, relief and excitement and above all the sense of rightness of hitting this after wading through so much unpromising material.
My initial enthusiasm was at finding this key to using the concept of kairos to think with – a concept that makes articulate the underlying, but previously unarticulated basis of purposive drift. But more than that Erikson’s book is filled with ideas and insights about how we interact with each other and our world – a book I know I will return to many times to prompt trails of fresh thoughts. (It’s also a good example of how putting up free material on the web can pay off – I bought the book and have been busily recommending to friends ever since.)
I draw a few disorganised thoughts from this experience. The first is that the process of finding a glimmer of an idea, wading through a long, seeming unpromising period of feeling as if I was getting nowhere and then hitting that moment of rightness is the dark side of purposive drift – the bit I have drawn least attention to. Living a life of purposive drift does mean experiencing periods of time where nothing much seems to be happening. The difficulty with this is that it is often hard to tell whether actually nothing much is really happening or whether there is a whole lot going on, but you just can’t see it.
By one of those convenient coincidences, John Naughton recently posted a quote from Don DeLillo, which tied in with one of the things I had been pondering about the relationship between kairos and purposive drift. The question I was pursuing was how do we know when we are wasting time? As DeLillo says:
“One’s personality and vision are shaped by other writers, by movies, by paintings, by music. But the work itself, you know — sentence by sentence, page by page — it’s much too intimate, much too private, to come from anywhere but deep inside the writer himself. It comes out of all the time a writer wastes. We stand around, look out of the window, walk down the hall, come back to the page, and, in those intervals, something subterranean is forming, a literal dream that comes out of daydreaming. It’s too deep to be attributed to clear sources.”
What DeLillo is talking about here is the “wasting time” that could be confused with procrastination, maybe sometimes is procrastination. How do you tell when you are allowing what I call your back brain to be getting on with stuff or simply putting off doing something you should be getting on with?
There is another kind of wasting time, which is the time spent when you are waiting for the right moment to do something. The moment when the elements in a situation you are trying change come together in a configuration that will enable an intervention to have a desired effect. This is almost the opposite of the letting your back brain get on with stuff, where you are having to turn off attention. Here paying attention is your key activity, but again it can seem as if you are doing nothing. And, once more, how do you tell whether your attentive waiting is purposeful or just putting off something you should do?
But perhaps one of the activities where it is the hardest to know whether you are wasting time is when you are on a quest like my search for kairos. Had I stopped before I found Erikson’s chapter, I might well have concluded that I had been wasting my time. The difficulty here is that the thrill of the chase can blind you to the fact that the quest might be misguided, a happy, busy way of filling time that takes you nowhere.
I am still thinking my way through all this, but my intuition is that the notion of Kronos has become so embedded in our being that we have lost much of our sense of Kairos. My feeling is that if we were to cultivate our sense of Kairos, we would suffer less from from wondering whether we were wasting time or not. Clearly something I will be returning to many times in the future.

One thought on “Cultivating Kairos”

  1. The night sky is just vast darkness filled with points of light until someone teaches you the word “constellation.” Then it becomes a place of images, symbols and myth.
    Kairos is such a word for me. I don’t know that I have much to add to your writing, but the thought that rose for me was that, as calendar time compresses–a deadline nears–my productive time increases. More is accomplished in the 48 hours before a deadline than in weeks prior.
    Before the word kairos, this was simply the rationalization of a procrastinator.
    and it may still be just that.

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