I am late with this blog and I feel the pressure of time on my back. I work on the blog in the five minutes before leaving for rehearsal or on a plane in an uncomfortable seat. Afterwards of course I reproach myself for not using the extended time on the airplane to write. Why did I “spend” this precious time watching inflight television?
The ancient Greeks conceived of time in two radically different ways and produced two different words to distinguish one from the other: chronos and kairos. In English, we have to make do with only one word: time. This “making do” has led us to confuse these two fundamentally diverse means of experiencing time.
Chronos is measured time. Kairos is unbound and unmeasured time. Chronos is quantitative while kairos is qualitative. Chronos is chronological time. It is the difference between time and timing. Any moment can be experienced as either chronos or kairos.
My upbringing instilled in me a proclivity towards chronos. Growing up in a military family I was taught to be hyper conscious of chronological time. I was expected to be on time, without fail, and if not on time, to arrive early. Family outings were awkward. At picnics, invited events and excursions, we would be the first family to arrive and then, of course, we were the first to leave. It seemed to me that we left before the fun even got started. Even today chronos is my default setting. Programed to do so from an early age, I measure time incessantly. I am generally uptight and nervous about punctuality. I am hyperaware of time and measure it and check it constantly. I wake up as if I have an alarm clock implanted in my brain. Just before leaving home for work I panic about being late. I arrive everywhere early. In some ways I am proud of my punctuality and expect it from others. But I also recognize my predisposition to be a prisoner of chronos.
Neither chronos nor kairos is time itself. Chronos is a particular way of understanding time by the clock. It is chronology. It is measurement. Kairos is, on the other hand, timing or opportunity.
Our present cultural moment of digital frenzy has obliged us as a culture to be super attenuated to chronos. Our lives are generally segmented into time sequences and deadlines and schedules and calendars and hourly to-dos. We wear watches, which we refer to perhaps too often and more often than not others’ opinions of us are based upon our success with time-management.
Without vigilance, I feel that I am too easily sucked into the experience of time as chronos, regular time, one minute at a time, staring down the clock until the work day is over, thirty excruciating minutes in traffic time, “when are we going to get there” time, and two hours till lunch time. Chronos is the hard, slow passing time that we perhaps know all too well.
As a teenager, I read Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse and the experience became a landmark in my development as an artist and as a human being. Initially I found the book difficult, requiring effort and perseverance. Then a little more than halfway through, something unexpected happened. There I was, sweating through the complex tangled unfamiliar narrative and all of a sudden a trap door opened and I fell through. I remember the sensation of free-fall. Spaciousness. Freedom. The book had led to this moment of release and sensation of timelessness. Thinking about it now I believe that this feeling of free-fall was kairos. Freedom. Space. The discipline of reading the book led me to the ecstasy of free-fall. And the free-fall kairos experience is what I want to recreate in my work, for audiences in the theater.
Kairos is the right or opportune moment, time outside of time, quality or special time, and crucial time. It is a crossroads. How does the archer know when to release the arrow? Kairos is the time apart from the sequential time that we know and inhabit each day, a time when things of great magnitude or special significance happen. Kairos, which feels like a non-clock-based realm outside of time all together, is pregnant time, the time of possibility, and seems to become the moments in the day, week, month, year or lifetime that defines us. Kairos cannot be measured and yet it always leaves an impression, an impact. You cannot make it happen but you must be ready to receive it.
This state of readiness for the opportunities of kairos requires consciousness, vigilance and effort. I have to consciously stop, take a breath and check in on the quality of the moment rather than the running of the clock. When I practice T’ai Chi Chuan, my first gesture is to take off my watch and put it into a pocket. I do this because I do not want the constriction of a watchband. But I realize that it is a symbolic action as well: In the time set aside to practice, I remove chronos and kairos takes its place. One breath and then another breath and then the next. One. At. A. Time.
Kairos is the alternative, the readiness to take advantage of changing circumstances. It is withheld from no one, but one must do the preparatory work to be in a position to perceive it. Because it is not “our” time and as such it cannot be controlled, it happens when it happens. It is necessary to co-operate with kairos. Hunting and rehearsal are two examples of situations where kairos is crucial and necessary. Great comedic timing demands an intuitive sense of kairos, as does a musical improvisation. In these situations, one enters into a state in which timing is everything. There is nothing else.
Kairos is a string of moments that possess possibility, that can bring clarity, and that force us to be absolutely present; a window of opportunity created by circumstances. Since readiness is the entry point to kairos, at any given moment it is necessary to be willing to drop what one is doing based upon the opportunity that arises. How would an archer know when to release the arrow without an exquisite sense of kairos? She depends upon gut level experience and instinct while the question “when?” is a constant presence. Kairos intersects the linear passage of time.
At the end of a recent PBS interview, Paula Zahn asked Bill T. Jones about the future, about where he thought the pendulum might be swinging. His answer was instructive. “Where is the pendulum swinging?” he asked. “I don’t know ladies and gentlemen but I will tell you this: It will swing and we will not know where it is swinging. Will we be ready? That is my last word: it’s a question. How to get ready? How to have the youth educated, calm enough, clear in spirit. How to have the audience’s eyes sophisticated enough, the critics open-minded enough, able to negotiate lots of different strands of investigation and to be humble enough to know when they don’t know what they are looking at. Will we be ready?”
In contrast to kairos or readiness, chronos or measurement, eats us alive. Literally. We die from time. It always ends up killing us. It takes away everything that we have and then eats us. The Greeks invented a god named Chronos and gave him a serpentine shape and three heads – one a man, one a bull and one a lion. Regarded as destructive and all devouring, Chronos personified time. Fearing a prophecy that his own son would overthrow him, he swallowed each of his children as they were born.
The Romans transformed the Greek god Chronos into Saturn. Saturn is also the god who ate his children. In our lives, chronos can become demented. We race against the god Chronos or Saturn and it is what ultimately kills us, eats us. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld says that 95% of life is killing time. Days and years are counted and regretted. Each and every day our minds and our bodies dwell in chronos time and it can grind you down. You can get caught in the habit of it. In English we have derived the words chronology, chronicle, anachronism and chronic from chronos.
When we break objects down into their parts and focus hard on the pieces, we are generally in chronos. Like dissection, this methodology works best when the subjects are dead. On the other hand, when we concentrate on the space around the pieces, when the space between things matters more than the things themselves, we have shifted to the time signature kairos. We think less about fiddling with particular objects than about recognizing or even influencing the patterns they create and the connections that they engender.
Perhaps the secret of chronos and kairos is found in their balance. Perhaps the proper management of chronos allows kairos to arise. In the theater, our shared objective is to elevate the quality of the time spent together. Perhaps attention to and management of chronos is the preparatory work that puts everyone into a position to perceive kairos. Insuring that the starting and ending time matter and showing respect for the chronos of everyone involved permits the assembled to savor the potential in each and every moment and also allows events to catapult in unexpected directions. In rehearsal and class I insist on beginning and ending exactly on time. If I had my way, performances would commence at precisely the appointed hour. I am not a temperamental director but stage managers know that I can become a bit nasty between 8 p.m. and 8:05 or whenever the performance is supposed to begin. A play is like a soufflé, I complain, and beginning late will deflate the event.
And yet, perhaps this formula of balancing chronos and kairos is cultural, and in my own case, protestant. At a theater festival in Bogota, Colombia, our production Culture of Desire was meant to commence at eight p.m. The doors opened, audience entered leisurely and our show did not begin until well past 9 p.m. But no one seemed to mind and in fact the shared time amidst the audience was graceful and festive. The kairos commenced upon the occasion and chemistry of the audience’s gathering. The circumstances were right for kairos.
Kairos cannot be planned, and it certainly cannot be forced. The best you can do is pay attention to the sort of things that lure it in your direction. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play absorbed in a game, whether building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. It seems to me that the practice of Viewpoints, an interval of consistant readiness and a state of potential, even in the midst of action, is kairos. Perhaps in kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, touching upon the wonder of creation.