Kairos vs Chronos - Moments in Time
Is it possible that there can be different notions of time? With the success of the modern clock, it’s hard to imagine any other way to measure time than counting the seconds. Yet the notion of “kairos” developed by the ancient Greeks provides an alternate way to consider time, and one which aligns well with the process of meaningful history selection and the experience of synchronicity.
The ancient Greeks distinguished between “Chronos” time and “Kairos” time. Chronos refers to the incessant ticking of seconds into the future. It is how we define “chronological order” and how we tend to think of history. The theory of relativity devised by Einstein refers to time in the Chronos sense, where the seconds tick by at different rates for different frames of reference. In contrast, the concept of Kairos time has more to do with the quality or propitiousness of the moment.
Consider a baseball game. From a Chronos perspective all times in the game are equivalent. But from the baseball player’s perspective, some moments are more important than others. A batter who is up when the game is tied with a runner on third base feels a lot more pressure than if the score is not close and the bases are empty. The duration of her or his at-bat can be considered a Kairos “moment” in time, defined by the quality of the experience.
This Kairos moment includes many events. It may include anywhere from one pitch to a long series of pitches, conversations between the pitcher and catcher, and maybe some foul balls. Whether it is 1 minute or 10 minutes isn’t important, it is the feelings present in the circumstance that distinguish that moment from others.
From a Chronos perspective, we would measure this at-bat in terms of many ticks of the clock. From a Kairos perspective, this is one moment: the period of time over which the batter can significantly influence the game by getting a hit. Once he or she strikes out or gets a hit, that moment is over.
In the model of the apple tree in meaningful history selection, any choice can define a branch point, but it is natural to draw the branches using only the most propitious choice points. These are the Kairos moments, the opportune moments for change.
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Synchronicities are Kairos moments
Moments like these can overlap. Although the batter may experience a high stakes situation with a runner in scoring position, that moment is embedded within the game as a whole, which itself is a moment. The whole game is a moment of opportunity in which the teams have the chance to improve their standing in the baseball league. By contrast, before or after the game, nothing they do can affect this.
Synchronicity is highly compatible with this notion of moments. Each day can be seen not only as a ticking of the clock but as a collection of moments, each moment identified by the nature of the meaningful circumstances that arise. For instance, the other night we were running tight on time on our way to the theater, and parking was not going to be easy. When we were still a few blocks from the theater I noticed a parking spot, so I hit my brakes and turned on my blinker. The person behind me, however, was too close to me to allow me to back into the spot. This was a Kairos moment: if I gave up and drove away we would be late for the play, but if the other driver could get around me everything would work out great. I held my ground for that moment, maybe ten seconds, and sure enough the driver behind me quickly figured out how to get past. I backed into the spot and we made it to the play right on time. That moment made a big difference in our night!
Life is a collection of moments
Moments like this show up all the time. I think of each day as a collection of them. As you go through your day, looking at your experiences through the lens of meaningful moments might be a useful way to see more opportunities for synchronicity. A moment can involve staring out the window at the sunset, a particular drive to work one day listening to a great song, an argument with a loved one, or a whole summer vacation.
Moments are defined by the quality of the emotions we experience, not by the number of ticks of the clock. Seeing the moments for the opportunities they carry, and also seeing the transitions between moments, provides an alternative to the strictly egalitarian march of the Chronos seconds. As human beings, we naturally create meaning in our brains, and the Kairos view of time can help us align the flow of time with our natural human way of interpreting life.