Oh Wittgenstein. You know just how to put things. He means essentially that if our language – or our personal level of literacy – doesn’t have the words to describe a concept, we will not have any way to communicate that concept, or even think it. If you don’t know the word ‘kairos’, you’re missing out.
The ancient Greeks had two words for time, and kairos was the second. The first was chronos, which we still use in words like chronological and anachronism. It refers to clock time – time that can be measured – seconds, minutes, hours, years.
Where chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative. It measures moments, not seconds. Further, it refers to the right moment, the opportune moment. The perfect moment. The world takes a breath, and in the pause before it exhales, fates can be changed.
The Greeks liked to personify just about everything, and you’re probably familiar with the personification of Chronos: just think of old Father Time. A weary, bent-backed old man with a long grey beard, carrying a scythe and an hourglass. His resemblance to the Grim Reaper is not accidental. Chronos, or Saturn to the Romans, is the stuff that kills you. It takes away everything you have and then it eats you too. Take a look at Francisco de Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, to the right. That’s Chronos in all his gruesome depravity.
Kairos, on the other hand, was a young man, lithe and handsome. Statues of him could be found all across the Greek peninsula, but the most famous stood in now-ruined Sikyon. It had the following epigram carved into it:
Who and whence was the sculptor? From Sikyon.
And his name? Lysippos.
And who are you? Time who subdues all things.
Why do you stand on tip-toe? I am ever running.
And why do you have a pair of wings on your feet? I fly with the wind.
And why do you hold a razor in your right hand? As a sign to men that I am sharper than any sharp edge.
And why does your hair hang over your face? For him who meets me to take me by the forelock.
And why, in Heaven’s name, is the back of your head bald? Because none whom I have once raced by on my winged feet will now, though he wishes it sore, take hold of me from behind.
Why did the artist fashion you? For your sake, stranger, and he set me up in the porch as a lesson.
Ancient Indians had the same divided notions of time: chronological and kairotic. And like the Greeks, they mistrusted Chronos. The Sanskrit equivalent of chronos is kala, from which the destructive goddess Kali takes her name. The image of her dancing on corpses with a belt of skulls and severed hands is grisly enough to put one in mind of, well, Goya. The Sanskrit word for qualitative time is ritu. Like kairos, it has a spiritual sense to it, time that is lifted out of the ordinary business of life. It also connotes the ‘right’ time, and is still used in Hinduism to refer to the correct moment for various ceremonies and rituals.
In Christian theology, kairos is referred to extensively. It has a sense of ‘ripeness’. For example, in this passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” and so on.
In the first Greek translations of the Bible, each use of the word ‘time’ in the above passage is rendered as kairos, not chronos.
In 1985, a group of black South African theologians wrote a response to recent crackdowns by the Apartheid government. It was called The Kairos Document, and it began “The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived.” The Document was pervaded with a strong sense that the time was ripe for change: the fate of South Africa balanced on a knife’s edge, and small actions might have the power to change the path of history. But kairos need not be as dramatic as that. It can be a small moment in one person’s life that is ripe, and full, and perfect.
Perfect. We are told, in general, not to expect perfection. If someone promises it they’re either selling something or deluding themselves. We conflate idealism with naïveté and pessimism with ‘just being realistic’. But to deny the existence of perfection is to deny the evidence of our own lives.
In Chuck Palahnuik’s Fight Club, Tyler Durden spends hours dragging driftwood logs into position on a lonely beach.
“What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand. Only now the fingers were Nosferatu-long and the thumb was too short, but he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler had sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself. One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”
And the most you can expect from a moment is that it be perfect.
It’s hard to pin down an example, but I’ll try: Some years ago I was wandering through Sydney’s Hyde Park. The Night Noodle Markets were on, and workers streamed out of their offices and into the approaching dusk. Red lanterns were strung between the trees and the stalls. The sharp sweet scent of a hundred different kinds of noodles filled the air. Music drifted in from a distant stage. Somewhere in the crowd, a beloved friend was waiting. And there was a perfect stillness and serenity within me, and a sense of enormous significance. Part of me didn’t dare move, for fear of bursting the soap bubble of the moment. At the same time I knew that no step I took could be a wrong one, just then. If this sounds a little mystical, I’m sorry. I’m not sure you really can describe a moment of kairos, but maybe you can help someone recognise a time in their own life when they’ve felt it.
The trend in Western society is towards standardising experience. Chain restaurants have extended their reach beyond a quick burger to high-end places like Jamie Oliver’s branded restaurants. Each Squid Ink Risotto served is as predictably like another as one tick of a clock is to the next. Travel companies now oxymoronically provide package tours for the independent, grassroots traveller. Be inspired and awed at precisely-timed intervals. Pop music has been manufactured to a formula for decades, not to mention the avalanche of clones that pours out every time a new book becomes a bestseller. You could fill a library with artless copies of Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.
All of this is designed to ensure nothing too strange or disappointing ever happens to us. The only way to keep safe from disappointment is to avoid any risk of surprise altogether. How, in all this homogenising, can we hope to encounter kairos?
It’s not as grim a prospect as I just painted. Sometimes, when you go to see live music – maybe someone famous, but it could easily just be a guy with a guitar your friend dragged you along to – and as the first notes start up, a swelling of anticipation rises in you. You realise this will be something special. Maybe his guitar-playing is nothing spectacular, but his voice his arrestingly beautiful. Or his voice is rough, but his lyrics seem true and important to you. Whatever it is, you stop noticing the passage of time. You forget you were ever annoyed with your friend, that you were tired, and the hundred other things you’d been worrying about.
It might not be music. You might be walking along a beach, or drinking wine in a park, and you’ll realise there isn’t one thing you would change about the moment. There is a sense of abundance, that the universe is full of good things, there for the plucking.
But you have to risk disappointment to find these moments. It’s how a traveller can miss their flight, get food poisoning, lose their passport and still talk about the trip with shining eyes and flushed cheeks. They’re remembering kairos.
The catch though, is that kairos can’t be planned, and it certainly can’t be forced. The best you can do is pay attention to the sort of things that lure it your way – if not much seems to, then try a hundred new things – and throw yourself across its path. Run the risk of being bored, tired and footsore.
The most you can expect from perfection is that it last just one moment. And the most you can expect from a moment is that it be perfect.
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