Dance to the music of time – new Idler column

My column in the Idler, Mar-Apr 2022, just out!

The future is changing. A better tomorrow is no longer an automatic assumption. The myth of progress, which shapes a scientific age, looks readily challengeable, if not straightforwardly deluded.

Threats loom, from environmental degradation to fresh pandemics. Economic stagnation is frustrating Generation Z. Others fear increasingly smart, increasingly menacing AIs. Welcome to 2022.

There is much debate about the nature of these perils, even their reality, and that is wise. I was an IT journalist in the late 1990s and spent much of 1999 penning articles about Y2K – the so-called “millennium bug”. Remember that? However, notes of caution sounded, the background noise of anger and worry also signals an opportunity.

I’m thinking about the way we experience time and I’m convinced we could experience it much more abundantly. That might bring various advantages, including lessening the collective anxiety about any looming apocalypse, though the positive enrichment of life is as much on my mind.

Put it like this. Right now, I imagine that the type of time called chronos-time tends to dominate your life. This is the experience of time engendered by clocks. The unstoppable march of the minutes disciplines and punishes us. Indeed, because most people carry a mercilessly accurate timepiece in their pockets – the gizmo also known as a phone – the very seconds of the day can demand that we march to their beat.

Back in 1999, I thought myself tardy if I arrived half an hour late. Today, I feel I’ve committed a deadly sin if delayed by more than a minute.

This is the curse that the Roman philosopher, Seneca, noted in his essay, On the Shortness of Life. The risk of expecting a long life is becoming preoccupied with the passing of every moment. The grains of sand falling through the hourglass are experienced as continuous heralds of the end. The capacity to treasure the moment is eroded – the treasuring that ensures even a short life offers plenty, Seneca advised.

The insight can be amplified by contrasting chronos-time with another type called kairos. The word comes from ancient Greek and originally designated one of two things. A first was the precise instant to throw the shuttle through the loom when spinning. A second was the sense of timing possessed by the great orator who knows exactly when to deliver the line that stirs the crowd. “Yes we can!”

Kairos is, therefore, time in all its richness. It is time not as a steady ticking but as an alive presence. Any instant can be plunged into, to realise what Plato remarked as “time: the moving image of eternity”. William Blake caught the sense in his famous lines from Auguries of Innocence. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”

Blake was even more direct about kairos-time in another collection of his thoughts, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure.”

The awareness of depth, rather than mere passing, can be cultivated via an inner movement of attention. Instead of being fooled into believing each moment is rushing by, step in your mind into the moment, as if standing still in a stream. Eternity might become a felt presence and with it, a sense not of the contents of the day, which chronos-time highlights, but also of the fact of being alive on this day, which kairos-time loves. “Flow down and down / in always widening rings of being,” wrote the poet, Rumi.

It’s worth holding out for this perception, personally and in society at large. Take the experience of music. It only makes sense because of kairos-time, for all that a metronome can help get the notes in the right order. The vigorous climax or poignant pause is time given texture, meaning, colour. It’s why every so often, one part of a particular tune will grab you and demand to be listened to time and again. There’s the bit in My Sweet Lord by George Harrison which, to me, feels like a sunrise. Or the few bars from the final section of Widor’s famous toccata for organ which flutters like the wings of angels. You’ll have your favourites. Enjoy them.

The turning of the year is another kairos moment, which is why the winter solstice has always been marked by rituals and feasts. Don’t let anyone tell you that festivals are moments to have a blow out before real life returns. The truth is precisely the opposite. The festival reminds you of a facet of life that, with practice, can become accessible to everyday consciousness.

The gift of idling is the same. It is a refusal of the monopoly of chronos-time that is so powerfully enforced in a technological age, in which every hour is judged by its utility. If it can’t be measured, if it can’t be quantified, if it doesn’t do work, it doesn’t exist. No!

Just stop. It only need be a pause. Instantly, you become a rebel, which is why it can feel hard to do. Flow down into being, rather than be entranced by the zeitgeist.

Who knows. It might make you want to consume less because you feel you already have more. It might make you want to possess less because you sense you have the most important thing you need.

“The quality of our attachments is the quality of our understanding,” argued the philosopher, Iris Murdoch. If you broaden your understanding of time, the nature of your attachment to life shifts. It widens. It eases. The future needn’t so worryingly threaten because you are more strongly connected to now.

This year, there will be progress and some things could regress. But kairos-time knows something else. The year will be packed with moments that are doorways to a storehouse that overflows.