Kairos II... The End of Time

  Jerome Shea       February 11, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
In the moon that is always rising.
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

(Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill,” final stanza)

Where was I? Ah, yes. Kairos. For us rhetoricians, kairos is the opportune time, the ripe time, “the spur of the moment” restored to living metaphor. Carpe Diem, as the Romans had it. For a theologian—which I am decidedly not, though I play one when I feel like it—kairos is somewhat similar, but (as I understand it) God, not circumstance, is often calling the shots. “In God’s good time” or, more trenchantly perhaps, “when God is good and ready.” It might not be too much to say that God, who is outside of time, enters time at kairotic moments to effect His own designs—or, rather, pieces of His Design. Kairos implies God’s plan for bringing creation to its (fore)ordained conclusion, remembering that God’s omniscience and omnipotence transcend time itself—which makes a Godawful (pun intended) hash of the chronos and kairos that we poor mortals can understand.

But between the rhetoricians and the theologians, it seems to me that there is something missing here, something that we all instinctively recognize and constantly experience. This is why I suggested last week that we might hijack “kairos” for our own purposes. I mean that if chronos is the length of time, then we can think of kairos as the DEPTH of time (and some of my reading supports this view). I mean that if chronos refers to the quantity of time, then kairos might serve us to refer to the QUALITY of time. I allude, finally, to the universal feeling that time seems sometimes to creep by at the proverbial snail’s pace and at other times to dart along like a hummingbird. After all, what else do we mean when we use expressions like “Where did the time go?” and “having a good time” and, most tellingly, “having the time of your life” (as contrasted with “Will this Sunday afternoon NEVER end?” and the perennial car trip wail “Are we THERE yet?”). Poor MacBeth (“To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day”) would know exactly what we are talking about here.

I have, most of the time (you see I really can’t seem to keep time, like a cat determined to get in my lap, out of here!) the most wonderful job in the world. I am a teacher, a professor. And when I am “in the zone,” as I think they say, when I am really clicking in front of a good class, when ideas seem to coruscate like diamonds in the dust and my synapses just somehow can’t misfire—when that class and I are as connected as one organism…well, I am—we are—in the lap and bosom of kairos. Crafty Kairos, if you will, has had his way with implacable old Chronos. Not even a fair fight.

I want to leave you with a gloriously goofy thought. Perhaps what follows our mortal existence is indeed oblivion*. But perhaps not. What if there really is an afterlife but that “afterlife” is simply the ultimate triumph of kairos over chronos. Think. Your life is slipping rapidly away. This is the climactic moment, the sum of all experience. If that moment is not to be kairotic, I don’t know what moment would be. It is just then that Kairos rises up and SMASHES CHRONOS TO SHARDS AND SMITHEREENS. You find yourself in such a depth of time that it seems to last forever. And “seems” is all we need to effect such thaumaturgy).

You are finally, really, eternally, having the time of your life.

*The other day I was told that one component of modern anesthetics like the one I was once given is a drug that induces profound amnesia. It often happens, I was told, that the patient even talks during the surgery, but has absolutely no recollection of it afterwards (in other words, my point about complete oblivion stands). I have no cause to doubt this, but I must say that it suggests something grotesque: while sliced open like a trout, you are spouting inanities like “Hey, how ‘bout them Broncos, huh?”

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