Kairos I

  Jerome Shea       February 3, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Last week I said that there were no time-outs until the final one. Perhaps I was a tad hasty.

A few years ago I underwent my first and—I hope—only major surgery. I expected to be put under the way we see it on TV, with me lying there on the operating table, a plastic mask over my nose and mouth and a nurse saying, “Now just relax and breathe normally.” Off I would slowly drift to dreamland.


Rather, I was lying on a gurney out in the hallway, chatting with the anesthesiologist, a very pleasant young woman. I was hooked up to an IV through which they could administer their potions of choice. She promised to see me again in the OR and take good care of me, and was gone. So I was lying there and getting, frankly, impatient. I stared at the ceiling and muttered, “Uh…could we please get ON with this, folks?”

Twenty hours later I found myself (I was going to say “woke up,” but thought better of it) in the recovery room, belly all bandaged, drain syringe and catheter installed. Out in that hallway I had not “faded to black.” I had snapped, slammed, banged to black! Whatever had been added to the IV—and I am deeply grateful for it—put me instantly into an oblivion so utter and absolute that I had never experienced anything like it and doubt that I will again. Not dreamless sleep; not the quasi-coma that too much drink will cast you into; not even, I daresay, getting whacked unconscious, sapped.

Was it a “time-out”? Certainly time did not stop for those twenty hours. All around the town people were picking up their dry cleaning, eating Big Macs, making love, paying bills, arguing, joking. And at Lovelace Medical Center, Shea was getting sliced and diced, sewn up, wheeled upstairs. But time stopped for Shea; Shea was cosmically AWOL. Shea, I maintain, had a time-out. The proof, for me, is that had I died on that table I would not have known it. The oblivion, if that is our ultimate lot, would simply have continued forever (which seems a meaningless term in this context). Certainly all the memories that trail and traipse behind a person had been shorn from me. I had no past. I had no future. I had no time.

But I promised kairos, and I am sure your patience is wearing thin. And if I haven’t disposed of kairos this week, I swear on my mother’s grave to do so next week. No, really. On Mother’s grave.

Turns out, first of all, that kairos means different things to different people. Specifically, it means one thing to a rhetorician like me, another to a theologian, and perhaps a third to a poet. Is there, nonetheless, a commonality here? We’ll try to find out. Can we hijack the term for our own purposes? We’ll see about that, too.

For us rhetoricians, especially those studying argument, kairos is a SPACE in time, the opportune time, “the time [being] ripe” (and what a wonderful metaphor that is!). Cave canem! ( No, wait—that’s “Beware of the dog.”) Carpe diem! That’s it: “Seize the day!” There are even representations to be found of Kairos. He is not quite a god, perhaps more of a demigod. He is winged, as befits any agent of fleeting time. He is, literally, poised, ready to carpe that old diem at a nanosecond’s notice. Or, conversely, he is the one to be seized, he is the fleeting diem and it is we—we opportunists—who have to be quick about it. He is always depicted as having a nice hank of hair on the front of his head—a forelock—but being bald behind. The implication is clear: be ready to grab that forelock as he flies past, or lose out, with nothing aft to grab onto. Timing is everything.

Examples? One commentator cites Hitler’s grabbing of that forelock. Professor Burton (Sylva Rhetoricase) points out that had post-WWI Germany been relatively prosperous instead broke and broken as she was, even Hitler’s legendary oratory would not have availed him. As a marathoner, I know kairos. Make your move too late and you are…too late. Make it too early and you wind up as roadkill somewhere around mile 22. Political commentator David Brooks has this kairotic insight: “Move [Iraqis] in a certain neighborhood [to safety] too early, and militias could perceive a vacuum and accelerate the violence. Move too late and you could be moving corpses.”

I leave you here with good old Henry David Thoreau, who well understood kairos. Performing brilliant CPR on a near-dead metaphor, he wrote, “I feel the spur of the moment thrust deep into my side. The present is an inexorable rider.”

Till next time.

We are all diminished by the death of Molly Ivins last Wednesday. Typically, my brother, a conservative who seldom agreed with her, used to say, “But she really is a hoot, ain’t she?” Indeed she was a hoot, a hot ticket, a (wonderful) piece of work. Always mad as hell and always funny as hell.

Ave atque vale, Molly Ivins.

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