The passage of time

The Greek, who had explanations for everything through the power emanating from Mount Olympus, were not happy having only one god of time. They had two: Chronos and Kairos. One god was not enough to explain man’s relationship with time, so great is the tension between them.


The only ability man had, in regard to time, was its measurement. For that he analysed cycles, such as the Moon and the Sun’s movement; he observed its effects over nature, and then standardized the period of the years, seasons and days, which were later divided in fractions called hours, minutes, and seconds. In his arrogance, man was confident that by measuring time he would also control it. Sweet illusion. Time measures only served to increase the sensation of time’s passing, as it drains off through our hands like water.


But it is not a lost cause. We humans might only be mere mortals, but we have a tool that allows us to control, if not time itself, then at least our own existence. This tool is called conscience. Conscience permits us to coexist with time from three different points of view: Physics, Metaphysics and Ethics. According to Physics, time can be measured. In the metaphysical ambit, time can be felt. And Ethics says time can be experienced.


Physics has the most obvious relation, and it is with a physical instrument that we started measuring time: the clock. However, the clock only tells us that time passes by – what we do with this information is our problem. Beyond the physics, time is a feeling and has variable duration, contradicting the clocks. Observe: two minutes under the dentist’s drill are longer than 16 minutes listening to Ravel’s Bolero next to the person you love.


Finally, Ethics brings the most conscientious individuals’ attention to an evident fact: time is a scarce resource that cannot be replaced, and its quality will rely on what we do with it. As Marcel Proust once said: “Love is the space and time measured by the heart”. He may well be considered an expert on the subject, as he dedicated over a decade to write nearly 4000 pages, published in seven volumes, focusing on the human relationship with values, time amongst them. The French writer named his complete work “In Search of Lost Time”. In the last volume, ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, the author makes several returns to the past, and discovers that only memory can confront time, and our peace of mind will be proportional to what memory will find in the past, which determines the quality we give to the time we have ahead to live.


We can feel and measure time. In that case, is it there at our disposal?

Time is there for us to use, but in the end we are the ones that are used by it. Therefore, to establish a peaceful relationship with time is a wise thing to do. Feeling and measuring time are related, as both allow us to notice that time is continuous. How? Well, to feel and measure how the hours go by are useful initiatives, as they help us to decide what to with the time we have. In this way, our peace with time will be directly proportional to the peace we establish with our choices and decisions – corresponding to each of our values.


The English scientist Stephen Hawking, who occupied “Newton’s Chair” at Cambridge University, wrote a book called “A Brief History of Time”. At some point, amongst intricate scientific concepts, he proposes that time must be analysed based on three arrows: the cosmological arrow, which explains the expansion of the universe; the thermodynamic arrow, which explains the constant modification of things; and the psychological arrow.


Yes, even the most important physician cannot analyse time’s facts without an appeal to Psychology. Matter’s intricate enigmas are related to time’s mysteries since its beginning – when man began to play out his role on the stage of the universe, his thoughts and feelings added new ingredients to the play, either a comedy or a tragedy.


The greatest contribution of Physics to this matter is the idea of relativity. Einstein’s sophisticated discoveries about the speed of light led us to abandon the idea of a unique and absolute time. “Thus time became a more personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it”, said Hawking. Our relationship with time is based on our values, options, decisions and guilt. This is psychological time. I spend more time on things that are more important to me. The question is to know your values.


Back to the Greeks. Chronos is the god of measured time, hence expressions such as chronogram, chronology, and chronometer. In mythology he is represented as an evil god who eats his own sons, symbolizing what time does with us nowadays – it seems like we are devoured by it. Whereas Kairos is the god of lived time, of the choices we make, of the way we seize our lives. Chronos is quantitative, and Kairos is qualitative.


The first sensation is that Chronos is an enemy and Kairos is a friend. The first wants to overwhelm, and the latter to set free. This is merely a sensation – in practice, we need both, since we cannot choose happiness without organising ourselves to reach it. Kairos extends us his hand. Chronos pushes us. But it is necessary that we know what we want and that we get organised.

Does wisdom consist of establishing connection between personal values and the management of our available time?


Mythology illustrates humanity’s anguishes very well. Zeus, the most powerful of gods on Greek Olympus, was Chronos’ son. But neither of them knew they were related, because Rea, mother of Chronos’ sons,  kept the information secret. Zeus only assumes power when he opposes Chronos and wins a battle against him. He was wisely advised not to kill his opponent, as he would be killing his own time and consequently would be imprisoned in the instant, without memory or future.


Zeus’ strategy for triumph over Chronos was to cut his tendons, and to tie his head up to his feet, creating a circle with his body. From that moment, the god of time also started to be the god of repetitive actions, cyclic events, such as day and night, and the seasons of the year.  In practice, Zeus conquered Chronos and dominated, even ‘administrated’ him. Our modern life does not differ from this. All of us have 24 hours per day at our disposal, and I am certain that you know people who benefit from these hours, produce, work, take care of themselves, have fun, and cultivate relationships. But you may also know other people who complain about the lack of time, the speed of happenings, the sensation of inconstancy, and the lack of control. Practically, what really happens is exactly the lack of control, of logic on the organization of priorities. The diary does not exist to slave us – on the contrary, it sets us free, grants autonomy, possibilities, achievements.


Nevertheless, management is only the second key word. The first is choice. We make our choices based on our values, and we create a strategy to achieve our purposes. Strategies rely on resources, amongst them the rarest and most expensive of all: time.


Translation: Melissa Mussak ([email protected])