Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Time and Life’s Narrative


In last week’s blog, I spoke about the possibility of our life being like a book—more specifically, like a palimpsest, a good, even great book that lies beneath an inferior text, a false narrative written over top of it.  And then, based on a conversation with a close friend, I thought and thought (a bad habit of mine) about this a bit more, and I would like to share with you a touch more about this idea.  If our life is like a book then it has a narrative, one that has chapters, an opening chapter and someday, closing one, as well.  It extends from start to finish, turns page by page, like a book. And like a book it has meaning, real meaning.  Thus, it involves the notion of time, which I suppose is what this blog is really about.

A few days ago, over coffee I was speaking with that dear friend of mine about life.  He was saying to me that for him life is about the here and now.  He couldn’t worry about the future because, he rightly stated, who knows about the future?  It hasn’t happened yet and you can’t worry about it.  And he had a point, of course, even one of biblical proportions, as Jesus himself says, in a famous proleptic phrase, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” and he goes on to tell his listeners not to worry about the future, for it will, he says, take care of itself.

But does that mean we should not think about the future at all?  If we don’t, we shall lose hope.  What do I mean by this?  Well, let’s think of it this way: psychologists are right, to some extent, to tell us that we need to accept the reality of our situation.  Yet, while one can’t usually change one’s circumstances entirely, accepting the reality of our situation doesn’t mean not thinking about the future and even planning for it, and it certainly shouldn’t mean giving up or trying to change things for the better.

My friend, who studied the classics when he was an undergraduate, seems to me to find his confusion on this point: he has remembered his Latin but forgotten his Greek. He has forgotten that while Latin has two prevalent words for time (hora and tempus), these terms do not offer the same powerful distinction as the Greek words chronos and kairos.  The latter term means time that is right here, right now, while chronos indicates chronological time.  Living entirely in the kairos and abdicating any serious consideration of the future necessarily involves abdicating any serious consideration of the past, as well.  If you give up hoping—for that is what the future is about, hope—you will find yourself giving up your memories, as well.  Now a psychologist might rush in and say, “Well, maybe that’s not a bad idea; some of those memories can be bad and you needn’t fixate on them.”  But no one said anything about fixating on them.  The reality is that you’re going to have those memories whether you try to forget about them or not, just as you’re going to have a future whether or not you try to plan for it (not worry about it, which by the way, is Jesus’ proleptic point).  We are, in fact, creatures of both chronos and kairos, and pretending one of them doesn’t exist is like pretending we don’t age.  We do, and we do have memories, and we will have a future.

Photo Credit: Fredrik Rubensson (flickr)

If there is such a thing as chronos, then how does the notion of kairos fit into it? The ancient school of philosophy known as Epicureanism argued that within the kairos one should find the maximum amount of pleasure, from food, which is what epicures became famous for, to drink, to sex.  Probably most modern college students live in the kairos, and I remember very well being one once.  I was in a fraternity whose old idealistic motto “Be Gentlemen” had long since fallen by the wayside and had tacitly and unwittingly been replaced with “Seek pleasure.”  They were, though they knew it not, modern-day Epicureans, though not in a fully developed sense, of course.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 3944306234_3ef0c83bac_o.jpg

Religion, badly done, only knows chronos.  It offers no kairos because it is afraid of pleasure.  But that most unreligious (but not irreligious) person, Jesus, takes the term kairos up afresh and appropriates it.  He claims it for his own.  I say this not just because, as He says, He came eating and drinking (Luke 7:34).  Rather, He claims it as His breaking into human existence.  He claims it as His breaking into our lives. He says, pay attention, right now, to what I am doing in your life—right now.  And when He does so He says two other things: your chronos—all chronos—belongs to me.  And that’s a scary thought.  But what’s the second thing he says that makes that scary thought something actually wonderful?

A story will help here.  When I was in that fraternity in college I did some things that I wish I had not; things I felt guilty about and I’ve tried to forget, but I could not because you can’t really forget.  You see, people are like elephants.  We remember, and we grieve like those great beasts, too.  When an elephant loses its mate, it grieves in a way that few other animals do. It grieves because it remembers its lost mate or its lost calf.  We remember our parents, if they have passed away, and we grieve.  We remember things we have done that were wrong or hurtful, things we did selfishly, and we grieve, perhaps because we hurt someone in the process or perhaps because we simply know we did something wrong—something that could, if He exists, offend God—then we grieve.  Something inside bothers us; we can try to forget about it, maybe we even can sometimes, but somehow it’s still there, like bangles on a memory bracelet we got from our grandmother or the hands of a watch that was once our grandfather’s.

That watch’s hands tick, tick, tick, reminding us that we are in chronological time, not simply momentary time.  And that’s where the second thing that Jesus says is so important: I forgive you. I have redeemed you, I have bought you back, and now you’re free. Free from those memories, free from their guilt, free from regrets, free from your sadness.  And He adds: You’re free, too, not simply to enjoy the present, but to enjoy a future, a real future.

How can this be?  “Come on, man,” someone might say, “Get real.  We are living in the twenty-first century. Don’t give me this religious stuff.  It’s a panacea; it’s not reality.”  Let me ask you this: isn’t it possible that we can misinterpret what is right in front of us?  I once spoke to a Catholic priest who told me that the bible is just a bunch of made-up stories meant to help us explore our deeper psychological hang-ups.  I spoke to another priest who told me that Jesus is the Son of God who broke into this world from Heaven and can break into our lives and change everything for the better.  One of those priests went through the motions of Christianity every day.  He gave his parishioners the eucharist, baptized babies, and even preached homilies (God knows what he said in them, though); the other did the same.  One was right on top of Christianity but missed the point; the other got it.

What is that point?  I will close with it, putting it quite simply.  Chronos runs horizontally, like that transept of a church, like the crossbeam of a crucifix.  Our lives are lived on that horizontal plane whether we like it or not.  We have all along the way small kairoi of pain, pleasure, sadness, and joy.  But we may be surprised to know that there is also a vertical beam, just like the central nave of a church or the huge vertical beam of a crucifix, on which the horizontal beam depends.  We may think of it running bottom to top, but from God’s point of view as he looked down on his Son dying on it, it runs top to bottom.  It is God’s moment of kairos, His redemptive entrance into human chronos. He comes into our lives by entering human history with a human name, in human form, not just to teach us, not just to do miracles, but to redeem us. That isn’t merely a metaphor; that’s reality.  And He does the same thing in our lives. He turns up in our personal chronos miraculously, at just the right kairos, more often than not when we least expect Him to.  I told my friend, as I watched him finishing the last dregs of the bitterness in his cup of dark black, and by now quite cold coffee, to be careful lest this moment turn out for him to be a far different kind of kairos than he is accustomed to.  I pray it may be so.

H.R. Jakes with Elaine Jakes a few months before her death.  The answer may be closer than you think.