Sep 10, 2009

Kairos Time in a Chronos World

Physicists say that time is the 4th dimension. If that is true, it makes understanding time a bit tricky for us, mired as we are in a 3-dimensional world. The full, fluid reality of anything includes its changing over time. But we experience time as a single moment we call the present.

What I’m saying is, comprehending time in its fullness is beyond us.

The Greeks understood that time was too complex to be contained in only one word, so they had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. They were caught in the same 3 dimensions that hold us, so they couldn’t understand time any better than we can, but I’m impressed that they made the effort. Chronos is the kind of time that you and I are most familiar with. Chronos time is marked and named. “Two o’clock,” and “Three-thirty o’clock.” These designations are “of the clock,” meaning they belong to the clock, which is the great measurer of Chronos time. We strap small clocks to our wrists and call them “watches,” because with them we can watch Chronos time coming and going.

“Look, four o’clock is coming. Here it comes: 5,4,3,2,1, it’s four o’clock! Yay, I’ve been waiting all day for four o’clock. Wasn’t that nice? I love four o’clock. Oh well, now it’s gone.”

Chronos time is the time we use in the business world. When you punch a clock in the morning and punch out at the end of the day, what is left is a record that you worked during those hours. Appointments, calendars, and schedules all exist in Chronos time.

But the Greeks also spoke of Kairos time, which might be roughly translated as “The right moment.” Though we usually think of time as Chronos, the most important and beloved events and things in our world exist only in Kairos time, only when the time is right. And though Kairos time cannot be planned or mapped, we wish it could be. Our plaintive questions show how desperately we want to control Kairos time and force it into the Chronos world.

“When should I tell her that I love her?”

“When does a boy become a man?”

“When will that poem be finished?”

“When will God answer my prayers?”

Time is easily mapped, but these things will not be put on any human schedule. There is a season for love and birth and death and creativity. You know when the season has come, but you could never have predicted it.

Last week I wrote about my struggles with my new job at Jethro Management. It has been a difficult adjustment to learn a new organizational system. But the deeper issue for me is one of time. I have been living in a world ruled almost entirely by Kairos time. As a writer and a pastor and a spiritual guide, my time has been Kairos time. When I write, time disappears for me. I work on something until it is finished. How long it takes is meaningless. I have things that I finish in one sitting. And I have some pieces that I’ve been working on for years. Writing is so very indulgent in this way. You work until it is done. It doesn’t matter whether you are paid or not. You work as an artist works, feeling your way along, waiting until your soul provides the words. Sermons are born in the same way. So are prayers and spiritual conversations between friends at church.

The biggest shock to me in returning to the world of business was suddenly finding myself in a world ruled by Chronos time. The first website I developed for Jethro was a simple website for an Australian man who sells frozen drink machines. I’m sure Tim told me that we had an 8 hour design budget, but I didn’t hear that. The man had no graphics, and I spent a fair amount of time creating a banner and other graphics for him. When Tim added up my time, it came out to 17 hours.

“17 hours” he said. “We were supposed to be done in 8 hours. How could this take 17 hours?”

The answer was simple. I wasn’t watching the time. I was working and doing graphics and trying to make the site look nice, which is hard to do when you have no graphics at all. So I made a little Arctic scene with his machines sitting on the ice. I thought it looked pretty nice considering I’m not really a graphic designer. And I painstakingly cut out his machines from larger images so they could be displayed on the site. What can I say? It took me 17 hours to do the website.

For a moment I wanted to claim that doing good work for clients means giving them our best. But another reality became clear to me. Tim is paying me by the hour. He’ll collect a certain amount from the client. And if he pays me for 9 hours of extra work, he won’t be in business for long. I’m sure that many of you who work in the world of billing and hours are thinking, “Of course, Gordon. That’s how business is run. How could you not know that?”

But somehow I didn’t know. When I was lost in my work, time didn’t exist. I was treating my work for Jethro the way I treat my work as a writer and a pastor. My world has been writing and Christianity, and both of them are measured in Kairos time.

This is a big problem, isn’t it? How do you bring creativity and a good work ethic to the workplace when the first two are measured in Kairos time and the last in Chronos? What I’ve learned at Jethro is that when we are at work, we must live in the scheduled world of work. That means we have to honor the counting of time in a Chronos world. We honor it by watching its boundaries and watching the clock.

But I have discovered that you can bring your creativity to the world of work and Chronos time. You do this by watching the clock, but also being willing, sometimes, to go above and beyond the clock.

Recently we had another client who had no graphics and wanted a simple site done. I knew from the budgeted time that I would not be able to design any graphics for him. But I wanted to. So I told Tim to tell the client that I was going to work an extra hour so that the site would look nice. No charge. I did it because I wanted to. I put some limits on this. I gave an extra hour of my time, but no more. I felt good about the work. And the client was happy.

Afterward Tim said, “I can’t always promise that there will be money if you do that. But if there is some margin and you’ve gone above and beyond, the company will take less profit and I’ll try to pay you.”

So you can bring Kairos values into a Chronos world. But there are a couple of rules:

First, I truly don’t care if I get paid when I do extra work. I do it to please myself. My faith in Christ and my desire to live like Christ have given me a desire to produce quality work. This is important to me. I might not be able to give 6 hours of unpaid work, but an hour or two on occasion is a price I am willing to pay. You can’t fake this. You can’t go above and beyond and then be irritated if you don’t get paid. When you bring Kairos to work, do it for your own reasons. Any extra pay you get is a bonus.

Second, I talk to Tim about my time. I let him know if I intend to do something extra for the client. And I limit that extra work so that it doesn’t eat up profitable time. He knows what I’m doing, so he doesn’t worry about the budget. Tim has to worry about the budget because he is the one writing the paychecks. That’s a burden I wouldn’t want. The least I can do is be as clear as possible and honor the Chronos time that rules the world of budgets and schedules.

As a writer and pastor and creative person, living in my new business world is certainly a challenge. But I’m finding ways in which Kairos and Chronos can live together in peace.

Gordon Atkinson

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