Time in the Outdoors

Recently my minister gave a sermon that explained the concepts of chronos time and kairos time.  Chronos time is that time measured by the clock.  Kairos time, on the other hand, is the concept of the Lord’s time, which does not correspond to chronos time and may not be measured.  Kairos time is metaphysical and beyond human comprehension.  This concept goes back at least to Greek times, when it was understood that time could be more than a measured unit.

In our modern age, chronos time is what drives us both at work and home.   We constantly confront deadlines, whether imposed by a third-party, our boss, or ourselves.  In my profession, for example, the court sets deadlines in litigation for filing lawsuits, filing papers, scheduling these cases for hearings and trials, etc.  Clients set deadlines for projects and transactions.  My profession also measures my worth, or value, based upon chronos time.  For most legal work, the billing unit is tenths of an hour, or six-minute increments of time.  

Most jobs are similar in that meeting deadlines and time spent on the job wholly or to some extent measure performance.  Scheduling and time commitments are also ubiquitous aspects of personal life.  There is always so little time and so much to do.  Indeed, in an increasingly busy, complicated and technological world, even “finding time” to be outdoors can be difficult.

In most outdoor sports, chronos time determines victory or measures success.  Whether racing against a competitor or directly against the clock, we are competing in chronos time.  When we race, we are conscious—usually very conscious—of the passage of time.  We wear watches that can keep track of it down to the hundredth of a second, and we time ourselves even in training.

We also, however, can experience kairos-like time in the outdoors.  Upon reflection I believe this may be one of the most important reasons those of us who are attracted to the outdoors spend time there.  In the outdoors time can become metaphysical.  The beauty of outside and our exertion somehow converts ordinary chronos time to kairos-like time or at least may allow us to experience something akin to kairos time. 

Reinhold Messner, the great mountain climber who has spent as much time alone in the mountains as anybody, has stated that while climbing his perception of time could become altered.  Messner has reported that while climbing he has had conversations with his deceased brother, and that at times when at altitude his entire existence seemed to be reduced to nothing more than a single, breathing lung.  Reading through literature, it is apparent that mind-altering or other virtual out-of-body type experiences like this are not that uncommon among extreme outdoor athletes, especially when they are alone and in remote areas.  They also almost universally experience kairos-like time.

A friend of mine who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail once told me that his journey completely altered the way he experienced and viewed time.  “Time was meaningless for me on the trail,” he told me.  This was one of the most memorable and important experiences of his 2000+ mile journey.  When I run, time may become slower and faster—sometimes simultaneously.  Time can seem to palpably slow as my mind relaxes, clears and yet races through thought.  For example, I wrote this entire essay in my mind within a one mile section of the Virginia Creeper Trail while running. 

When we get in “the zone”—and all endurance athletes know what this means—time as we ordinarily experience it is altered or may even seem to stop altogether.  In “the zone” there is a zen-like state of mind, feelings of a sort of euphoria, and temporal freedom.  Our mind relaxes until there is only the pleasantly repetitive, meditative stride while hiking or running.  While cycling, there is only the trance-like pedaling cadence, legs “ticking like a metronome,” as the saying goes.  We don’t always achieve this state of mind on every outing, however when we do it is a truly transcendent experience.  It’s part what keeps us coming back to these activities.

“The zone” has been extensively studied by scientific experts, and its cause is not well understood.  One possible yet inconclusive theory is that it is somehow related to the endocannabinoid system.  Like “the zone,” the phenomenon of kairos-like time in the outdoors has not been scientifically explained.  Are these experiences merely a perception resulting from the mind-altering physiological effects of exercise in the outdoors, an endorphin-induced high no different from the effects of a drug?   Is our perception simply the calming effect of being in nature?  Or is the different kind of time experienced in the outdoors not just a perception, but a reality:  Perhaps the closest we can come to appreciating an actual ordered yet unmeasured kind of time like kairos?

I am thankful for time spent outdoors.  There usually is not any analysis of it, though.  When I come back later than planned from a bike ride, run or hike and my wife asks what happened, I don’t get into a religious, spiritual or philosophical discussion with her.  I just shrug my shoulders and tell her, quite honestly, “I guess I just lost track of time.”

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