I was five years old when World War II came to the United States. It was early December—the 7th, to be exact—when my older brother Jay, my father, and I were in our basement in Wakefield, Massachusetts, building birdhouses that we would be giving as gifts to our neighbors. In those days, fruit was packed in wooden crates with thin slats on the sides; we used this wood for our birdhouses.
Our intense clustering over the worktable was shattered by the sudden howling from my mother who had flung open the cellar door and shouted, “Jad! Jad! Come up here! The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor, and we are at war!” My father (known as “Jad”) spun away and took the stairs two at a time. The rest of that evening Mom and Dad were huddled right next to the radio, inhaling audibly and shuddering visibly and exchanging glances that said, “What happens now?”
The attack by COVID-19 was not so sudden, and its immediate effect not so dramatic. But now that we are into an indeterminate shutdown of so many of our life-giving and life-enhancing routines, with no end in sight, we all wonder how long this state of affairs will last. As a five-year-old, my foremost concern was to know how long I would be deprived of my favorite dessert—tapioca from the Philippines. For the adults, it had more to do with getting coupons for gasoline or tires. For planting backyard “Victory Gardens” and recycling flattened tin cans. And for saving congealed bacon fat to be donated to the American Fat Salvage Committee. (Why? It was rich in glycerin—a key ingredient in explosives.)
For child and adult alike, the answer to “How long?” was always the same: “For the duration…” No one knew, no one could possibly know, whether World War II would be over in six months or six years. All anyone knew was that it would be hard, no matter how long it lasted.
Here we all are today, sheltering in place and yearning for each other’s health and safety, for the duration. For a society who lives by the digital clocks on our wrists, on our handhelds, and at the upper rim of our laptops, running our lives by punctuality and time-bracketed commitments, this is perhaps a fine moment in which to consider “Kairos”.
Kairos is a Greek word for “time”, but not a word we are much attuned to. We are more familiar with its Greek cousin “chronos”. That’s the root of words we live by to package and synchronize our lives into manageable units: chronology, chronic, chronicle, chronometer—or anachronism. (Did you catch it earlier in this last sentence in “synchronize”?) The precise designation of chronological time is calibrated by numbers we assign to the juxtaposition of inanimate objects: the earth and the sun. We assign to their relative positions a certain number by which we label each moment noted. In civilian life, we split a day into 12-hour AM or PM segments, but in the military those numbers run right through from midnight to the following midnight in a rolling 24-hour enumeration. It’s so arbitrary that we even fiddle with it twice a year to “save” daylight.
Ah, but Kairos is a far more profound and elegant kind of “time”. Not surprisingly, we English-speaking Americans don’t have an Anglicized word for it. The closest we come in normal speech is when we say that “it is high time” for something or other. See, Kairos is not oriented to inanimate elements of the universe but, rather, to the affairs of human beings. When we say something is “timely” we don’t mean the alarm just went off; we mean rather that human affairs have created just the right moment for it. In the never-ending interplay of friends and lovers and competitors and family and powerbrokers and haves and have-nots and neighbors and fortunes and failures and accidents and windfalls and viruses and medicines and health and sickness and death and recovery and threat and safety, reflecting on our Kairos instead of minutes, hours, days, and weeks is a better way to gain understanding of what time it is. Sure, we all yearn for restoration of what we knew and had before the crisis, and we’re itching for someone to tell us how long. But the only truthful answer to that is “for the duration…”
Pressing authorities for a chronos-based answer is surely the least wise way to satisfy our need to know, as it’s only likely to force stupid decisions from them. They are utterly at the mercy of Kairos, and we must not tempt them to patronize us with false promises or ill-considered actions. Destructive though wars—military or viral—always are, they oftentimes produce great advances in both medicine and society.
Already we know just from the past two months that work life will henceforth and hereafter be far more dispersed thanks to Zoom, reducing unnecessary commuting and polluting. Family life may sustain some of the rediscovered intimacy and interaction of shared stories and board games. Good books may become even more a staple of our enrichment. Perhaps we’ll remain more in touch with distant family members or keep spamming friends with humor and poetry and music videos. And simple neighborliness, long a victim of our nonstop hustle, could just possibly continue to reinvent itself. So let’s concentrate on what advances we ourselves can invent and nurture during this one “for the duration…” After all, there’s no reason to go back to a world just as it was, if we can emerge even better.