Americans tend to be driven by the clock, but there are other ways to look at it.
In order to prepare a variety of foreigners for residence in North America, L. Robert Kohls and his staff at the United States Information Agency constructed a groundbreaking article, “The Values Americans Live By.” Kohls felt that visitors to the United States needed to understand “common American values” to help them to integrate more fully into the predominant culture.
Among the topics Kohls covered was the importance of time. Americans often conceive of it in ways far different from others around the world. As Kohls wrote:
“Time is, for the average American, of utmost importance. To the foreign visitor, Americans seem to be more concerned with getting things accomplished on time (according to a predetermined schedule) than they are with developing deep interpersonal relations. Schedules, for the American, are meant to be planned and then followed in the smallest detail.”
The article continues:
“It may seem to you that most Americans are completely controlled by the little machines they wear on their wrists, cutting their discussions off abruptly to make it to their next appointment on time.”
These thoughts on timekeeping in the U.S. are striking, for not only do they prepare foreigners to reside here, but they also allow those of us already living in America to see ourselves through alternative lenses.
Everyday language in this country is filled with references to time, showing how much we value (and sometimes obsess) over so-called “time management.” For example, many in the U.S. believe time can be “on,” “kept,” “filled,” “saved,” “used,” “spent,” “wasted,” “lost,” “gained,” “planned,” “given,” “made the most of” or even “killed.”
One can safely argue that far too many of us fail to manage our time, by allowing time to manage us. And instead of owning our watches, our watches actually own us.
The ancient Greeks had two terms for time, chronos and kairos, and these conceptions are helpful as we learn to become less concerned with saving time and more focused on being saved from time.
As chronos refers to chronology and deals with quantity, kairos signifies opportunity and quality. Time is experienced not merely by the tick and tock of a clock (chronos), but as a variety of openings in time (kairos) that take place with each passing day. Which means, while a commitment to chronos confers countless benefits in regards to productivity and organization throughout society, we also recognize its limitations if not properly balanced with kairos.
As our collective experiences remind us, though failing to prepare is indeed preparing to fail, some of the best times in life are unplanned. And just because someone has a clock does not mean they have the time.
As we mark chronos by turning our calendars from 2013 to 2014, let us do so with the words of Lao Tzu, “Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’ ”
With such kairos wisdom in mind, we recognize that we do have time for the lives we wish to live, and we do have time to be that which we wish to become. For every instant of time is a glorious opening of awesome opportunity, and every breath that pours into our bodies offers a life-giving and life-freeing occasion for us to embody the best of what it means to be fully alive.
The time to be saved from time is now, for tomorrow is today’s dream, and we do have time for possibilities to become reality.
A new year of new time is upon us, and the opportunities of a lifetime — at this time — are now in front of us. May we begin.
Brian E. Konkol is chaplain of the college at Gustavus Adolphus College.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.