Making Kairos

Today, I have a life I love. I don’t believe this would be the case if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to view my time differently.

When I contemplated putting some writing out in the world, I knew I was yearning to share a message. Of course, I then ran into the difficult question that all messengers should ask: what is my message? I struggled with this question for an embarrassing amount of time. Why do you want to say something if you’re not really sure what it is you want to say? If you can’t articulate the core of your message, then why should you be sharing anything at all? Then, a thought calmed my turmoil: Kairos. My message is Kairos. What I wanted to share was the importance of Making Kairos in life.

I first came across the word Kairos reading the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. The book chronicles the adventures of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters through bus trips, hiking trips, and psychedelic trips. The experience and consciousness of the intrepid group was named by Wolfe as a Kairos. Though I’d never come across the word before and it was describing a rather peculiar set of circumstances, I felt what it meant. I had my own modest psychedelic exploits, but I knew the word in more of a cerebral sense. I eventually tattooed the word on my body.

If you tattoo a word on your body that comes from another language, you will need to define the word frequently. Unfortunately or fortunately, Kairos is not as easily explained as “This is the Chinese character for strength.” 

From my tattoo explaining memory: 

Kairos is a Greek word for time. A certain sort of time. When thinking of the concept of time, there is the concept of Quantos, which means chronological or quantitative time. The way we normally think of time “It is one o’clock, then two o’clock, then three…” is quantitative time. Kairos is more qualitative time and the exact quality of the time could mean different things for different contexts. It is often used during a time where someone is making a decision or deciding to take an action. Sometimes people equate it similar to Carpe Diem. In fact, when Kairos is personified in artwork or Greek mythology he is depicted as having long hair in the front and a shaved head in the back, meaning that you need to grab him while he’s in front of you. One of my favorite explanations of Kairos is attributed to Aristotle, who said that if you have steps in a logic proof written out, Kairos is the blank space in between the steps where you are putting things together to advance forward. 

Yes, I have that explanation memorized and go through it all when someone asks me what my tattoo means. It’s a bit much, but I’ve been well practiced. 

I came across the term Kairos at a particular time in my life. I had recently left a PhD program studying Political Philosophy and was unsure where I should go in my life. During my undergraduate years, I was sure that I would either go on to Law School or to get my Doctorate in Political Philosophy. After completing a legal internship, I was unsure of the constraints of legal life and favored the intellectual pursuit of a PhD program. I took the GRE, got accepted to one of my last choice programs, and went off to seek truth and contemplation. From the start of this endeavor, I was extremely unhappy. I was struck by the absolute remoteness of my studies to any actual impact on the world. No one else in the department seemed bothered by this. I remember pointing to obvious conflicts in Rousseau’s work with the lives we were leading as students en route to professorship, and none of my fellows seemed troubled by this conflict with a cannon in the field. In my feelings of isolation and meaninglessness, I had a depressive breakdown, leaving the program at the end of my first semester.

When I got home, rife with the shame of my defection, there was the problem of what to do with my life. I volunteered for political campaigns. I waited tables. I applied for nine to five jobs. I couldn’t see myself living through these pursuits. I drank at an incredible rate. Every day, every night. Much of it alone. I knew I needed to get myself out of the place I was in. 

I read over the word Kairos in Wolfe’s text. When I decided to look up the word’s actual meaning, I had the epiphany that I should pack up my Ford Focus and drive around the country for an undetermined length of time. The moment just felt right. That was my Kairos. This was the time for me to go unto the world. I shared the idea to a friend who joined me on a two month journey around the country. 

The crux of why Kairos is so important to me lies in the distinction between quantitative and qualitative time. Are you counting time or qualifying it?  Does an hour always feel the same because it’s always sixty minutes? If two people both live to be eighty years old, did they live equal lives? To me, it was helpful to distinguish between what the typically quantifiable components that are stressed in life –your age, salary, and savings– and the quality of life events — transformative experiences, epiphanies, choices that altered your course. Rather than ask “what time is it?” ask “what is it time for?”

While it would be years before I would find sobriety and achieve true freedom in my life, I did come to terms with a sobering reality: up until that point, my life goals were to be a Doctor or a Lawyer. I would be important, smart, and well off. People would know that I was important, smart and well off. I would have degrees, titles, and salaries. These were very quantifiable goals. What dawned on me was that I had been unconsciously pursuing the accepted conception of a life well lived, being a Doctor or a Lawyer, because it was cognitively simple. What I found was that the quality of life was incredibly more enjoyable eating beans from a can in a no-name state park than getting high marks on my GREs. By embracing the Kairos moment of that trip I learned to consciously live life in a way that enriched the quality of experience, not the quantity of external metrics.

In the years since, I have tried to reorient my perspective. What I believe is that through this reorientation, I have been able to grab a hold of more Kairos moments that would have otherwise passed me by. While perhaps conceptually simple, look for one thing rather than the other, a reorientation of perspective is one that in my experience takes reiterative reflection, contemplation, and introspection. Today, I have a life I love. I don’t believe this would be the case if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to view my time differently. It is my goal to share my perspective and thoughts that will enable others to find a perspective that increases their fulfillment, not through the quantifiables, but through the qualities that give them joy. While people often try to “make time” for certain activities or practices by trimming or reorganizing items on their schedule, my hope is that people will be able to Make Kairos by taking a deeper look at the moments and opportunities that afford the chance to live in deeper meaning.