As I often do before a speaking gig, I call my contact once, twice, three times to ask the same question: “How long do I have to speak?”
It’s a question about time. Everything about my personality is designed not to pay attention to time, especially when I’m awash in a personal passion. So, I call the group leader. More than once. Tell me again the size of the corral in which I’ll be standing.
She tells me, again, that I have 45 minutes.
So, now I’m standing in this community center somewhere in Burbank. Or La Canada. Or Pasadena. Or Disneyland. And I start talking to this bright and beautiful audience. I find my groove. It’s simply ridiculous how much fun I’m having. Things flow. And the group leader raises her hand. “You have five more minutes,” she says.
I blink. You’ve got to be kidding. That was already 40 of my 45 minutes? I would have guessed maybe 12. So, I do what I often do. Which is try to compress the next 33 minutes into five, while trying to look like the whole thing was planned that way.
No matter how many times you tell me how big the corral is, it seems I’ll jump the fence.
And it’s not because I have a motive to jump the fence. It’s because, when I’m awash in passion (that is, an activity or subject that compels me), I don’t notice the fence. The fence doesn’t exist. Literally. “What time is it, Steven?” you ask. And, in these moments, the response is, “I’m not sure I understand the question.”
Ruth Barnhouse, my late teacher, mentor and friend, introduced me to the difference between chronos and kairos. Chronos (as in, chronology), means time like we normally think about time. Seconds, minutes, hours and days. The way we champion sprinters. The “corral” in which we play a football game. How we hard-boil eggs. Catch airplanes. Grow old.
Kairos is different. It’s the ancient Greek word for the right or opportune moment. A supreme moment. It’s a place beyond time.
Kairos is where a basketball player travels when he/she can’t miss. Or when you’re sitting on a back porch with a glass of big fat red wine and a dear friend in a rich conversation.
Or when you’re making love. Or when I’m writing a column. When you’re “lost” in some delicious and compelling activity, thought process, art form or relationship. When you’re suffering. When you’re awash in some ecstasy.
In kairos, time becomes irrelevant.
Religious people are talking kairos when they speak of eternity. Or heaven.
Eternity doesn’t mean “a long time.” It doesn’t mean “forever,” as in, all the time (chronos) that there is.
It means absolutely present to a moment. A supreme moment wherein you’ve forgotten yourself and are therefore paradoxically your most authentic self.
There are no watches or clocks in heaven. No alarms to set. If you ask “What time is it?” the answer will always be, “It’s now o’clock.”
Some personalities have an easier time with chronos. Other personalities (mine, for example), are more prone to float away into kairos. “Steven, you bend time,” is how my girlfriend says it. I rather like the metaphor.
Juggling the balance in this life of time and space is important of course. Not doing so ranges from impolite to irresponsible to a waste of a life. That’s why I carry a calendar. A friend once called my calendar “my brains.” As in, “Steven, go get your brains so we can plan for the next week.”
So, over time, I have learned to tether myself in necessary corrals.
Counseling sessions, for example, are 50 minutes long. In the near 30 years I’ve been doing that work, it’s a familiar rhythm. A “feel.” But every so often, I’ll get lost in a moment of kairos with a patient. I’ll look up and notice I’m 10 minutes past the hour.
“I’m sorry,” says the gracious patient. “So not your fault,” I say. It’s my job to manage chronos during the session. But sometimes I still jump the fence.
Getting my attention (chronos) isn’t always easy. I know that’s frustrating for people around me. But, when you have my attention (kairos), you have all of it.
In some cases, for some people, it’s probably not even entirely comfortable to have all my attention.
Kairos is easy for me. But remembering which Tuesday is recycle day is a dicey business at my house.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.