Living Madly – Kairos

Prague Astronomical Clock, credit Dimitri Anikin

Living Madly – Kairos

By Emilie-Noelle Provost

The ancient Greeks had two words for time. The first, chronos, refers to sequential measured time: minutes, hours, days, years. It’s the root of English words like synchronous and chronological, and the perception of time we most commonly use and understand.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways I spend my time and how I can make better use of it. Most of my time during the week is spent writing articles, essays, and marketing content. Sometimes these projects aren’t very interesting but they usually don’t take long, and they give me a feeling of satisfaction when they’re done.

I haven’t been spending any time recently working toward the professional goals I’ve set for myself, which include finishing two book manuscripts that have been sitting on my hard drive for more than two years.

For most of my life I’ve had no problem finishing any job I started, regardless of how daunting or time consuming it was. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I started having trouble concentrating on long-term projects. These days, I only seem to be able to finish tasks that allow me to see quick results.

When I sit down at my desk with the intention of working on one of my books, I’m often unable to even open the file. I stare at the Microsoft Word icon on my computer screen, tick off a mental checklist of reasons I should get to work, then close my laptop and look for a window to wash.

I’ve tried setting aside blocks of writing time, turning off my phone, and disabling our Wi-Fi. I’ve practiced visualization: I picture myself typing away, and imagine what one of the finished books might look like in print. I know I’d be happier if I just put my head down and started working on one of my manuscripts again. But somehow I can’t.

I’d call it procrastination, but that word usually refers to something that one eventually does.

After telling a friend about my problem concentrating, she sent me the link to a June 2021 article in The Guardian. It turns out that the issue I’m having has become fairly common. The post-pandemic inability to pay attention to anything for more than twenty minutes is a manifestation of what some researchers are calling “pandemic brain.”

According to the article, chronic stress and social isolation kill brain cells and destroy synapses. Prolonged periods of stress can prevent new synapses from forming, and can even cause the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates focus and learning, and the hippocampus, which controls memory and mood, to shrink.

Like many people, I was forced to deal with several stressful events during the COVID-19 lockdown, including being laid off from my editing job. My daughter’s senior year of college was cut short and her graduation was cancelled. We had to cancel a trip to visit my father in Florida and lost the money we spent on airfare. I was unable to see my mother, who was suffering from cancer, during the last five months of her life.

Even if my prefrontal cortex hasn’t shrunk, there’s the fact that processing multiple adverse events requires the brain to use a lot of its capacity. During times of crisis the brain sometimes doesn’t have enough bandwidth to deal with other things.

The second Greek word for time is kairos. It refers to a critical or opportune moment, the ideal time to undertake an action in order to accomplish a goal. It’s the moment a basketball player knows he or she must take a shot in order for the ball to make it into the basket; the sunny day in May when an experienced gardener knows it’s time to sow her seeds.

For a while I tried convincing myself that this is the perfect time to get my books done. I have a beautiful quiet space where I can write, and the time to do it. But as the real estate agent who sold us our house once said: If something’s meant to be you don’t have to force it.

A July 2021 article in the MIT Technology Review says one of the ways to reverse brain changes caused by pandemic stress is by doing things we used to do before COVID-19, like seeing friends, visiting museums, and going to parties. Being with other people and spending time in new surroundings helps new synapses grow. Having fun and feeling content can help boost motivation and confidence.

Whenever I start beating myself up about not making progress on my books, I try to remind myself that this is a time of recovery, for the world and for me.

The other day I went to lunch with a friend that I hadn’t seen in more than two years. I got concert tickets for Mother’s Day, and Rob and I are taking a vacation later this year. None of these things would have seemed remarkable prior to March 2020, but today each one is a stepping-stone. They won’t lead me back in time, but I hope when I gather enough of them I’ll be more like my old self.