Which time would you prefer: “kairos” or “chronos”?

Thank you David, or interviewee 62 (if I refer to my list). Oh yes, I have a spreadsheet. I was listening back to a recording I made last week (I have these too) and was taken by something David said. We were talking about difficult times.

Me: “What helps you get through them?”

David: “Accepting that it will pass, as everything does…any challenge you’re going through in life will pass. Time passes, situations change, people change and what you think one day is absolutely awful and will take an eternity to get through, is gone in 24 hours or in a week’s time.”

Now it should be my turn to respond, but there’s a pause on the tape. I can hear myself thinking. I start up again focusing on the word eternity.

Me: “That’s interesting. So you’re saying that if we’re in pain, physical or psychological, then time actually slows down…?”

David: “True. It certainly feels like it slows down because everything is perceived on a much bigger scale.”

Me: “Then if you’re not enjoying yourself time goes slowly… you perceive it takes longer if you’re unhappy!”

David: “Yes and I need to remember to say that to myself when I’m going through it next!”

We both laughed. But now listening back to it, I’m left thinking about time.

Time is definitely malleable. It depends on our state of mind.

When we’re waiting for the phone to ring, for a train when we’re late, or if we’re in physical or mental pain, then it takes an aeon for the second hand to work its way round the clock.

But if we’re sitting in the sunshine during a break, spending time with old friends, or eating ice cream, then it whizzes by. On holiday we ask, “Is it Monday or Tuesday?” When we find out it’s Wednesday we are shocked, “Where did the days go?”

The way we perceive time also depends on our age.

As children we hop and skip through the days of summer; three months of holidays stretch out so long that it feels like forever. Time has a different quality. Months go by as though they are years. There are so many new experiences and new memories to store and the more we gather the slower time passes. But there is a clear reason for this. When we’re ten, a year makes up 10% of our life.

However, if we’re 40, a year is 2.5% of our life. By then much more is routine so our minds skip over the blanks. We barely notice our journey to work each day — rarely is it novel or interesting. So as we get older there are fewer mental images to upload. When we look up from our desks we wonder how the years have passed by more like months.

I came across the Ancient Greek word for time, chronos. Time as we know it — a quantity, a measurement in seconds, minutes, or years. In English the words “hours” and “chronological” are based on chronos.

But the Ancient Greeks have another word for time, kairos. Where chronos means quantity, kairos means quality — the best times in life, not just the time that passes. We might use chronos to describe waiting impatiently, whereas kairos could be when we are deeply engrossed in something we love. Kairos measures moments not minutes. Or we could say chronos gets us stressed but kairos helps us to be refreshed.

A Hungarian Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, identified the state of “flow”; his name means Michael 100Michaels (which is rather easier to remember). He said we are happiest when we’re concentrating or absorbed in something that is important to us, making worldly concerns seem irrelevant.

British Psychologist Claudia Hammond also talks about the Holiday (or Vacation) Paradox. Time flies when you’re having fun, but as the new experience leaves distinctive memories, it gives us the impression that the event was longer than reality.

When we are going through difficult times, when our futures are uncertain, time can pass by so slowly. As David said, it can feel like an eternity. At the beginning, before my husband’s cancer diagnosis, he had an MRI scan for an anomaly in his head. The doctors thought it might be a brain tumour — meaning a swift and certain end. The hours were unbearable as we waited to hear his fate. Weeks later, when he started having monthly blood tests, time slowed again to a crawl. Each time we waited — were his results better, the same, or worse?

Many people I speak to in my Spoon by Spoon interviews are finding time difficult to deal with. They are impatient. They are still working out their direction and it’s uncomfortable not knowing where they will end up. But this process of re-calibration takes time. We have to slowly unpick the years, pulling out the threads one by one, working out which ones to keep and which ones to discard.

Whilst we have no power to stop the marching days, we can control how we perceive time. When life seems to be running away from us we need to get out of our routines. Change our routes that we walk, even if it’s just one different street. Talk to someone new at work. In the evening switch off the TV and do something unexpected. Simply do different things each day. This way we’ll forge new memories and slow down our perception of the racing time.

This can also work if we’re unhappy. If time is crawling by and our lives seems stuck in a rut then learning new things, doing different activities, will act as a distraction. It will also help us to lay down new memories. This fresh store is something we can access when we’re feeling down or life isn’t moving fast enough for us.

So if we choose, we can bend time a little. If we allow ourselves a little more novelty, a little more fun, then our time can be more kairos than chronos.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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