Time and Habit

January 11, 1995|By STEPHEN VICCHIO

The present moment is significant, not as a bridge betwee past and future, but by reason of its contents, which can fill our emptiness and become ours, if we are capable of receiving them. -- Dag Hammarskjold, ''Markings''

It is midnight, an enchanted moment when one day disappears and another mysteriously springs from its ruins. It is that portion of the night that John Milton wisely labeled ''the noon of thought.'' I sit with borrowed paper and pencil at a kitchen table. Outside the window, a gentle breeze moves through a South Carolina palm tree, while a lone, low-country lizard slowly makes its way along a white wooden porch railing.

It is a curious fact that a dramatic change of place often has the effect of allowing one to see time in a new way. A change of scene destroys habit, like a giant cable unwinding one strain at a time. Back home, against the backdrop of our regular life, these habitual threads are too small to be seen or felt, but they slowly combine, day after day, until they are too strong to be broken.

Earlier in the day, I walked with family and friends a half-mile out into a vanished ocean. Low tide had made the great Atlantic recede a few thousand feet, revealing its ocean bed.

Tiny tidal pools, no deeper than the length of my index finger formed little lakes between mounds of silt. It gave the visitors the feeling of being giants who had happened upon the Egyptian Sahara just moments after the Nile had burst over its banks. We had arrived at the proper time.

We hopped from island to island, examing the few small hermit crabs left by the great sea. They lay in the shallow pools, looking at first like small encrusted stones, or perhaps barnacles dropped from an ancient vessel.

vTC For an hour or so we moved along the ocean floor, four small children and three adults acting like children. A while later, the tide began to change, and my wife wisely cautioned us to return to the security of the shore, and the confinement of our shoes.

My wife is good at thinking about the future, and finding the dangers that might be lurking there. She is the responsible member of our family. I am more infatuated with the past. Neither of us thinks enough about the present. In our regular life, the one that races on back home, we always have some place to go. Often my wife points me in the proper direction or, when necessary, gently tries to drag me behind her.

This evening I am thinking about how little appreciation we have for the present. We are like the ancient Roman worshipers of Janus, the god of all beginnings, and the root of our word January. Janus was usually depicted with two faces, one peering out at the past, the other focusing on the future.

But Janus had no eye on the present. Perhaps the Romans were as uncomfortable with the present as we seem to be. Like us, they lived at various distances from it, fears, hopes, habits making the present an uninhabitable place.

The present can only be seen, of course, when moving at the proper speed. On the plane ride back to our regular life, we will cover a distance of more than 500 miles in less than an hour. But this evening, things move at a slower pace, and I am suddenly reminded of the ancient Greek festival to the god Pan, the giver of children and happiness.

At the feast of Pan, the Athenians held a foot race, all the competitors bearing torches. The first runner to appear at the shrine was declared the winner. With his medal came the promise of happiness and fecundity. But it was rarely the swiftest who won the prize. If one ran too fast, the torch was extinguished by the wind, instantly disqualifying the competitor. If a runner were too slow afoot, his torch oil did not last long enough to reach the sacred destination.

The Greeks thought that happiness could be gained only by moving at the right speed. This is why they were the inventors of the story of the tortoise and the hare. And it is why they made an important distinction between kronos, time measured in discrete units, time lost and saved, and kairos, the right time -- a distinction not preserved in the English language.

With kairos we understand the difference between accident and grace. It is the kind of time kept on the marriage bed and at the death bed. It was kairos that brought us poetry, while kronos brought us compound interest, call-waiting and the fax machine.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame.

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