Monday was a beautiful clear autumn day, so I chose to walk from my home to the Tiergarten with my camera, goal as much as I had one being to wean myself further off the automatic settings. I stopped en route for lunch at a café. The moment I’d finished eating, I began to gather my things and get ready to go. And the whole of me resisted: my body, my feelings, my instincts said ‘NO!’ Even the part of my mind that was on the side of the resistance won its case almost instantaneously. What was I rushing off for? This was not the moment to leave, it was the moment simply to sit, to take time not as theft but in appreciation. And so I sat, perhaps for ten, fifteen minutes; I don’t know because I had no time-telling device and anyway it really didn’t matter. I did nothing in particular: looked at other customers with neither special interest nor special aversion, studied a postcard-clad cupboard and cakes-in-waiting on a back sideboard, noticed that the café wall bore a large reproduction of a James Gillray cartoon of France and England personified at table, carving up the globe between them in the form of a plum pudding. A stream of inconsequential thoughts I now no longer remember doubtless coursed through my mind. Then another moment came, and I simply gathered up my things, left the café and carried on with the day.
What I broke through in this short span was the perpetual coercion of scheduled time, and there being never enough of it. That feeling of being always situated about five paces ahead of me, goading myself to hurry up and move onto the next thing, jarred by guilt, anxiety, resentment, and inadequacy. What filled its place was an organic insistence on rightness of time, which felt in turn quite different from sitting hollow at leisure, trying to drum myself into Relaxing and Enjoying the Moment.
The ancient Greeks had two words for time, which speak to the heart of what I experienced. Chronos is quantitative time: the measured, sequential time of clocks, calendars, schedules. Kairos is qualitative time: a sense of auspicious timing, of unmeasured time dropping beyond the intervals of chronology, and in which something special occurs. Yielding to my resistance brought back to me, tangibly not abstractly, the value and even necessity of kairos; it pulled me free of the encultured mindset which traps and exhausts itself in ever-finer increments of chronos. Packed schedules, minute-minded appointments, ever less time in which to accomplish ever more, and the attendant self-improvement tyranny of micro-managing your time to increase your efficiency.
It’s significant to me that, apart from the eureka of my initial resistance, the ten or fifteen subsequent minutes I spent in the café were utterly mundane. No blinding revelations, no life-changing encounters, no brilliant ideas. Perhaps the strength of my compulsion to stay put was an instinctive delivering of myself to, or from, something that happened, or might have happened, later in the day: a glimpse of perfect light to photograph, being hit by a cyclist. (Actually, I nearly was hit by a cyclist …) But perhaps it was just about kairos as an island of delay: not-doing, biding rather than grasping at time, the sufficiency of inaction, the interval of yin.
This most trivial of epiphanies illuminates something serious. A running thread in writings and conversations I follow is the absence, in a culture fixated on growth and acceleration at any cost, of a valid, intrinsic sense of enough, of not-doing, of conscious self-limitation, and of what effective right action might consist in; all different entirely from the lack, impoverishment, chafing restriction, or inefficient laziness which such qualities and concerns are more than likely to get caricatured as. ‘Doing your own thing in your own time’, as Peter Fonda’s character Captain America puts it in the film Easy Rider, is readily dismissed as ineffectual and self-indulgent, but do we ever stop to think of the harm we might be doing – to ourselves, to our loved ones, to the universal web of other beings and dynamics in which we’re embedded – by acting, not just too much and too rapidly, but – bereft of any sense of kairos – at the wrong times?
Kairos, coming down to us as it does from the ancient Greeks who believed powerfully in such forces, carries a potent sense of fate, of powers operating far beyond human control. We do not choose a moment to act, we have to know when to seize the right one, because such moments spontaneously present themselves and then pass away. Personifications of Kairos had a tuft of hair over the forehead but the back of their heads bald, to embody this understanding. At the same time, kairos was twisted back on itself, into the service of classical rhetoric, as the grooming and manipulation of time and space to achieve a particular persuasive outcome.
Therein, the tricksiness of right timing: however to know, from an island vantage, that we are truly riding a destined moment from within; rather than moulding an outer show of fatedness to achieve what we will.