Kronos & Kairos: Linear and Numinous Time Concepts
Kronos devours us with remorseless certainty. Kairos is creative and serendipitous.
THERE IS AN interesting historical context for a subjective perception of time that can help prepare the way for the conceptual journey of creating time. The ancient Greeks had two words for marking the differences between the experiences of time: kronos and kairos.
My father, Lonnie Kliever, a university professor in the philosophy of religion, wrote an article about kronos and kairos for the very first issue of my then-brand-new Artella magazine, back in 2003. His description of the concepts kronos and kairos is still the best way I know to explain it:
“As usual, the Greeks were ahead of us in thinking and speaking about such conundrums. Where we use one word to describe a whole range of things, they had the good sense to use different words to mark distinctions in reality and in experience. For example, they had three different words for the experience of love — eros for possessive love, philia for friendly love, and agape for sacrificial love. Not surprisingly, the Greeks had two words for marking the differences between the experiences of time — kronos and kairos.
“Kronos (or cronos in the English spelling, from which we take our word chronology) is sequential time. Kronos is the time of clocks and calendars; it can be quantified and measured. Kronos is linear, moving inexorably out of the determinate past toward the determined future, and has no freedom. Kairos is numinous time. Kairos is a time of festivals and fantasies; it cannot be controlled or possessed. Kairos is circular, dancing back and forth, here and there, without beginning or ending, and knows no boundaries.
“Like most mysteries of nature and life in the ancient world, these different experiences of time were seen as the manifestations of different gods. The Greeks represented time with nine different gods, but the main gods of time were Kronos and Kairos. Kronos, the god of the world and time, was the most important of the Elder Gods. He was Lord of the Universe, the source of life and death. He devoured his own children to prevent them from replacing him as the supreme god, but his wife saved their last son, Zeus, who eventually overthrew his father’s relentless rule of life and death.
“By contrast, Kairos was one of the subtlest gods in the Greek pantheon. He was portrayed as a winged god, dancing on a razor’s edge. In one hand he held the scales of fate. He reached out with the other hand to tip those scales, altering the course of fate. Kairos was the god of lucky chance. He personified numinous moments of time giving birth to novelty and surprise.
“Drawing on these ancient mythic images, we can revisit the two kinds of time with deeper understanding. Kronos is mechanistic and deterministic, time that is ruled by the dead hand of the past. Kronos devours us with remorseless certainty. Kronos turns life into stone. Kairos is creative and serendipitous. Kairos is time that is energized by the living dream of the future and presents us with unlimited possibility. Kairos turns fate into destiny.
“We are not helpless to tip the balance in the direction of kairos over kronos. We can temper our fear and our fixation on sequential time. We can deepen our quest and our experiences of numinous time. In such synchronicity of kronos and kairos lies our deepest consolation and our steepest aspiration.”
My father passed away several years ago, but these words are a bittersweet reminder that timeless wisdom often extends beyond a chronological life’s last breath. By embracing the idea of kairos, we move beyond chronology and begin to view our time and our entire life in nonlinear, expansive terms, opening up to rich opportunities for inspiration. Through this simple change in perspective, we begin to see how we too can travel through time, and how we can even connect to eternity, as our words, art, and actions of today can reverberate throughout the universe forever, just as my dad’s words are echoing here.
Where Kronos and Kairos Kiss
My first memory of these two Greek words for time is from my wedding day in 2000. A longtime family friend who officiated the ceremony, Bill O’Brien, referenced the terms during the ceremony, which was an apt touch, since my husband-to-be was Greek. In welcoming our friends and loved ones, Bill said, “This moment is a time between the times. A time without a time. A sacred moment, a holy moment, carved out by love’s integrity. A moment…where kronos and kairos kiss.”
Kronos and kairos smooched again on an auspicious day a decade later. On the day when Tony and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary, we discovered that a video of our wedding ceremony existed, and we hadn’t even known it! The discovery of this treasure was so powerful, it made me realize the importance of creating time capsules to uncover at surprising moments. As Tony and I watched this uncovered treasure-on-tape, we celebrated ten years of marriage in kronos time and were able to relive our wedding through the serendipity of kairos time. We were once again wrapped in a moment where kronos and kairos kiss, getting our own little glimpse of eternity in a tandem embrace.
Kronos and Kairos in Everyday Life
I have found the distinction between kronos and kairos to be very helpful in normal, everyday circumstances. By consciously inserting myself into one or the other, I can influence the way I experience time. During my workday, if I’m having a hard time moving from a fun, creative task into a deadline-driven administrative one, simply being aware of the fact that I’m moving from kairos to kronos can ease the transition. The distinction also helps me to better understand my own reactions when I get frustrated about time. For example, when I’m feeling frustrated that my young son is moving too slowly while we’re getting ready to go somewhere, I can realize, “Okay, I’m just feeling frustrated because I’m in kronos right now. Do I really need to be?” With this realization, I can let myself off the hook for perhaps being a little too rigid, and then lighten up a bit; maybe pretending that Kai’s socks are wild tickle puppets is, after all, more important than getting there “on time.”
I have learned so much about kairos from watching Kai and the way he perceives time. Kai was born in Hawaii, and his name comes from the Hawaiian word for “ocean.” The connection between his name and the Greek word for spiritual time is just a happy coincidence, but as you’ll explore in chapter 12, such synchronicities are moments that bump up against one another in time and often hint at deep experiences that take us out of time and insert us back into it. These days, little Kai is indeed my kairos, in the way he embodies not just timelessness but time-fullness.
Due to the genetic metabolic bone disorder he inherited from me, Kai has already been through a lot of medical challenges in his brief life. He has done a lot of living in a little time, making the number of years in his quantifiable lifetime up to now seem rather irrelevant. Kai is much smaller in stature than most kids his age but has a giant personality; like kairos, he cannot be defined by any linear measurement. Kai is always fully engaged in the present moment and also easily flits away to something new that catches his fancy, like a butterfly seeking nectar. When I tell him, “It’s one o’clock, time to go to nap,” he is likely to say something like, “Okay, but I have another plan: let’s play!” Kai, like all toddlers, lives in kairos and creates his own time.
It is up to each of us to define our own kairos and to create kairos in our own image. Kairos, as the embodiment of creative, numinous, spiritual time, reminds us that we can move out of kronos at will, to create our own time.
Creating Time Q&A with Marney Makridakis
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: Like most people, time has been a big challenge for me throughout my adult life, but it escalated after I gave birth to my first child and struggled to “do it all.” I devoured every time management book I could get my hands on, but still found myself exhaustively chasing time. I finally put myself on mission to find a new solution, and began to explore ways that I could apply my best resource (imagination) to my biggest problem (time).
I passionately researched and experimented with imagining, viewing, and experiencing time in new ways, and at last, began to feel time expand and change at my design. I created an online course to help others do the same and saw that other people had success with these techniques as well. After that, I finally felt able to sit down and write a longer work that developed these ideas much more fully, inviting my workshop participants and students to share their responses to the exercises and techniques.
I wanted to write Creating Time to help people who feel like they don’t have enough time to live the kinds of lives they want to live. I want everyone to know: when we don’t have time, we have to create it, and the incredible news is that we can do so using one of the greatest resources ever to exist on our planet: human creativity.
Q: Rich projects like this are created through both kronos (linear) and kairos (numinous) time. How much kronos did it take this book idea to evolve from conception to publication?
A: Throughout the book’s production, I felt very lucky that I was writing a book on the subject of time, because it kept the topic in the forefront in my mind, and helped enforce my needing to practice the techniques I was writing about! I’ve been self-publishing for 10 years, so it was interesting to encounter a new sense of time now that I was in the traditional publishing routine.
In some ways, traditional publishing is much slower than online publishing, but the turnaround time during various stages is often much quicker. In terms of kronos time, because I wanted to schedule traveling around the best times for my son Kai and didn’t want us to be traveling for the book tour during the hot summer in the Southwest, I put the entire project in high gear as did the publisher (and all the awesome contributors!) It was done in under a year, around 9 months, so it was easy to feel book “pregnant” during that time.
I found myself enjoying kairos for most of the creative generation, but I called upon kronos to help me reach those quick deadlines. The great thing about understanding kairos and kronos is that one is not “better” than the other. When we see ourselves in a partnership with time, these terms provide a helpful starting point for finding “where we are” at any given time. Simply asking ourselves questions like, “Am I in kronos or kairos right now?” and “What might happen if I switched into the other state of time in this moment? What new ideas or insights does that bring to light?” is an easy, yet powerful way to start partnering with time in a new way, and I found that technique very helpful when writing the book.
Excerpted from the book Creating Time: Using Creativity to Reinvent the Clock and Reclaim Your Life ©2012 Marney Makridakis. Printed with permission of NewWorldLibrary.com.