To orientate 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 U.S. needed to understand “common American values” that would allow them to integrate more fully into the predominant cultural currents. All together, “The Values American Live By” highlights numerous ideals that most (but not all) U.S. citizens possess, all for the purpose of awareness building and cross-cultural understanding.
Among the topics Kohls covered in his 1984 article was the importance of time, for people from the U.S. often conceive of time 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 in the U.S., but they also allow those of us already living in the U.S. to perceive ourselves through alternative lenses. As common language in the U.S. is filled with time references, it shows 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.” As a result, by allowing time to manage us, far too many of us fail to manage our time; instead of owning our watches (or cellphone clocks), those timekeepers actually own us.
The ancient Greeks had two terms for time: chromos, referring to chronology and dealing with quantity, and kairos, signifying opportunity and quality. Thus, time is experienced not merely by the tick tock of a clock (chronos), but as a variety of openings in time (kairos) that take place with each passing day. While a commitment to chronos time provides countless benefits in regard to productivity and organization throughout society, we also recognize its limitations if not properly balanced with kairos. As our collective experiences reminds 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 he has the time.
As we mark chronos time by turning our calendars from 2013 to 2014, may we do 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 continues to pour 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.
Brian E. Konkol serves as a chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University, Luther Seminary, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.