by Mike Phay
One of the most significant and world-altering inventions in human history is something you’ve probably never heard of. It’s never gotten a lot of press, even though it helped to fundamentally define the way we now live.
It’s called the escapement. Google it.
The escapement was first used in the 13th century and is the piece in the machinery of a clock that allows it to measure time in equally divided increments. It works by regulating the descent of weights or the unwinding of a compressed spring in a measured fashion, creating the distinctive “tick-tock” of the clock that so infamously vexed Captain Hook.
Take a moment and seriously consider what life would be like without clocks. How would you measure time? How would you know when to show up for an appointment? Or what time the football game will be on TV? How would you know what time to take a lunch break—or when you would have to be back from your break?
Precisely measured time is such an ingrained part of our experience that it’s nearly impossible to imagine life without it. Even as I write this, I’m aware of the current time, my next appointment, and the looming deadline to turn in this article. Precisely measured time—down to minutes and seconds—is the world that we live in, the air that we breathe.
Prior to the invention of the escapement and the subsequent proliferation of clocks, time was understood more fluidly and less mathematically. Metaphorically, time was seen as a flowing river rather than a ticking clock or a timeline. Practically, it was measured astronomically. The sun, moon, and stars—mysterious heavenly bodies that lay beyond our control—were the base tools for measuring time in large units such as years, months, and days. Even so, time was elastic, as changing seasons ushered in longer or shorter days.
The invention of the escapement marked in human history a radical paradigm shift from an elastic, rhythmic, flowing concept of time to a precisely measured, evenly divided, universal understanding of time. As historian Daniel Boorstin writes, “There are few greater revolutions in human experience than this movement from the seasonal or ‘temporary’ hour to the equal hour” (from his book The Discoverers, published 1983).
The Greek term for this kind of measured time is the word chronos, from which we get the word chronological. Chronos is passing, measured time, and in ancient Greek mythology is identified with the Titan Cronus, the father of the Olympians (Zeus, etc.), who was famous for eating his own children—much like chronos time devours us all. Zeus and his siblings overthrew their father, cut him up into pieces (like we do with chronos time), and proved their power over him by banishing him to Tartarus.
All that to say, we have a complex relationship with time. We are people who function largely in chronos time—making and keeping appointments, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, and trying to fit as much as possible into the limited time we have. Type-A personalities are known for taking control of their time, not allowing one second to be wasted. “Time is money,” we are told, because “time and tide wait for no man.” We must take advantage of the time we have because the time we have is limited.
And as helpful an invention as the escapement was—giving us (like the mythological Olympians) a sense of dominance and control over an uncontrollable, devouring part of life—it came with its own requirements. As Boorstin writes, “(mankind) had accomplished this mastery by putting himself under the dominion of a machine with imperious demand all its own.”
In the area of relationships, when we function primarily in chronos time, then people either fit into our schedules or they don’t. Since time is a limited commodity, we only have so much to give. Our relationships are controlled by a scarcity of minutes and hours. To give our attention, time, or energy to another person is to sacrifice a limited commodity. So we must decide, with every interaction, if the person before us—the one vying for “a unit” of our day—is going to be a drain to an already limited asset or a worthy investment of our time. We play a game of give-and-take based on what we can get from them in the time allotted. People become objects, defined by space and time, and their fundamental nature as persons who bear the image of God is devalued.
However, there is another way—a more ancient and biblical way—to view time. The Greek term that defines this understanding of time is kairos. Though a complex word, kairos can be understood to mean “a specific and decisive point” in time. The idea of kairos time, in the Bible, carries with it an idea of divine appointment: that God is in control of time itself, and he has appointed times, seasons, and dates to fulfill his own purposes. Each moment is, therefore, pregnant with purpose above and beyond our own understanding. In this sense, kairos time is purposeful, yet outside of our control. Our lives, therefore, are filled with a multitude of divine appointments, rather than a long line of annoying interruptions.
When we live in the freedom of kairos time, people are no longer seen as time-sucking drains. We are no longer forced to view others as assets or liabilities, worthy or unworthy investments. Because people are not things, they cannot be reduced to such a myopic view. Loving people in kairos time means no longer seeing time as a scarce asset under our control, but as a gift to be generously distributed. It means viewing every person as worthy of our time because they are not only created in God’s image but are placed before us by a God who loves them and wants to love them through us. Because of this, there are no interruptions. Only divine appointments.