Let’s Talk Greek

Every morning of March 2011, twenty-two college students gathered in the library that overlooked the garden kept by the nuns in the adjoining section of the Italian monastery.  Some of the lessons involved watching photographs projected on the white interior wall of the tufa building, while other lessons grew around discussions of art, symbolism, and Italian culture.

One of these lessons introduce the words kairos and chronos.

According to Wikipedia, kairos is “is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment” and “signifies a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens.”  In contrast, chronos is defined as “chronological or sequential time.”  In perhaps an overly simplistic summary of the two words, kairos refers to more of a perception of time as fluidic, whereas chronos refers to the structured, sequential measuring time.  [Please bear in mind that I’m no Greek scholar–this is literally what I remember from from a class four years ago.]

As I sat there, a junior in college at the time, listening to classmates discuss these two powerful words, I had trouble wrapping my head around the concept of kairos.  I knew chronos. Chronos helped to get things done.  How did you know where to be if you didn’t measure the minutes and seconds?  I knew that some people were not as time-oriented as I was, and that was completely fine…as long as I didn’t have to wait on those people to get something done.  I also knew that different cultures had different perceptions of time (which was the reason why we usually sat in the Italian restaurant that served our meals for an hour before the food actually came).  But when our professor raised the question of how it would impact our lives if we lived in kairos instead of chronos, I decided it wasn’t even worth considering.  If everyone lived in the moment and didn’t measure time, how would anything happen?  In my mind, kairos meant laziness.

And I’ve continued to live very much by chronos.

I still think that there’s nothing wrong with measuring time, especially sequentially.  It’s how things get done, how we keep everyone on the same page, and also a way to show respect to other people–we show that we care about them by valuing their time, because we know that they only have so much time to give and would probably like to give it in many places.  Time is a valuable commodity.

Three weeks ago I was privileged to travel back to Haiti for another teacher training seminar with my job.  I won’t even try to analyze the Haitian concept of time.  But I do know that it did not match my perception of structure, order, and routine.

And that’s okay.  In fact, it was great.

On Wednesday between seminars, we ended up with an extra day to relax.  In an effort to find something besides chicken and rice for lunch, we went to a hotel restaurant for lunch.  After being seated for about 15 minutes, the manager came out and told us there was no food.  What?  Okay, there was chicken.  And rice.  And fish.

We went to another restaurant.

After looking at the menu for 30 minutes, the waiter finally came out.  It took 20 minutes to place and order.  Then we realized that they were almost literally going to have to go catch the fish and harvest the potatoes before we got our food.

We left to find another restaurant.  It was 3 PM by the time we ate lunch.

Normally during this series of events, I would be getting more and more annoyed.  What was it that restaurants couldn’t get their act together?  Didn’t they serve customers on a regular basis?  What is wrong with people?

But seeing the way the people I traveled with made me change my perspective a little bit.  Sure we were all hungry.  But laughing at it and just being in the moment and being able to tell a story about ridiculous restaurants afterward was in a way more valuable than getting food that day.  Maybe it’s just looking on the bright side.  Or maybe it is kairos.

When you live in the moment and stop thinking about what’s next, it’s easier to see life around you.  It’s easier to see people.  It’s easier to hear their stories.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Greek

  1. Amanda says:

    I’m so fascinated by this post. I think it helps me to make sense of my life as an accompanying partner. Reading this it occurs to me that perhaps my sense of time is more “kairos” and that I make my life choices according to the opportunities that present themselves and what option best meets the needs and wants of myself, my husband and my children and that time. It’s when I focus on “chronos” that I feel my stress levels rise about what I should/could have achieved by this age, or what my career should/could have looked like by now. I think I’m happier in the moment.

    • lowen17 says:

      Glad for the insights, Amanda! I always felt like viewing time sequentially reduced stress level because I could see when things would get done, but I’m realizing that’s not always the case.

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