How do we know when the time is right? In every field of our lives, from work to personal relationships, timing is crucial. When to speak up, when to keep quiet, when to venture out or when to play it safe; our ability to discern when the time is right can have a profound impact on the path our life takes.
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. While chronos denotes the sequential passage of time, the inexorable forward flow, kairos refers to the opportune moment – whether that is the perfect time to release an arrow for maximum penetrative effect, or the right time to deploy a line of argument in a debate. Alongside ethos (character and values), logos (linguistic reasoning), and pathos (emotional sensibility), kairos was thought of by Aristotle as one of the cornerstones of rhetorical skill and dexterity. A winning argument had not only to be intellectually cohesive and emotionally resonant, it had to be delivered moment by moment with expert timing.
Pre-Socratic philosophers like Empedocles – the man responsible for giving us the concept of the four elements of earth, fire, air and water – even held kairos to be one of the fundamental forces of the universe, harmonising the duality inherent in all things. Even if our modern world offers a whole new set of belief systems outside of those conceived by the Greeks, it is also true that most of us can recall moments in our lives where timing played a pivotal role – for good or for ill.
The right word at the right time can change someone’s course of action, get our point across, make our voice heard or avert disaster, just as the inverse is also true. But if timing is so important, how can we master this seemingly quixotic discipline? Kairos is not about envisioning every eventuality and trying to think of the best line for each scenario (and driving ourselves mad in the process). After all, spontaneity is what gives life its colour and excitement, and society celebrates those individuals who, as speakers, musicians, actors, or anything in between, are able to think on their feet and respond authentically to chance situations.
The challenge, then, is not only to be alert to our situation but to not hold onto this alertness too tightly. Flexibility in thinking and reacting allows us to adapt, and we are most flexible when we are calm, still, at peace with ourselves and the world. This goes for big decisions as well as little ones: when is the right time to move house, to move country, to change career or end a relationship – these are decisions that aren’t instantaneous yet still require an acute sense of timing on our part.
Timing is about feel, an emotional sensibility beyond words. Even the most technically gifted musician is nothing without a sense of rhythm. Most of the time, we know when something is right because we can feel it deep down, the challenge is being awake to that feeling. Often it is our cognitive self that slows down our reactions, gets in the way with its concretised thoughts. In learning to listen to ourselves and find our sense of stillness within, we can become more in touch with our inner awareness.
When we do find that place, we are able to move in flow with the world around us, buoyed by an innate sense of timing and rhythm that almost seems to take over for us. Perhaps in these moments we are tapping into what Empedocles thought of as the fundamental kairos in the universe itself.