I have this thing about time. I think I always have, actually. I think it is totally incredible that we go through time always changing, that we haven’t the foggiest idea when we will pass on from this life, in fact we have no idea what will be in a moment from now. We think we do. That’s what’s called a routine, a habit, order, organization- we do them all well. They really do help us make sense of our lives- only, you know what? It is all kind of a game in the end, isn’t it? We did not control how we were created, we had zero influence on when we got here, how we were brought up as an infant, and so on and so forth. And we have zero knowledge of when and how we will die- is that not incredible?
Ernest Becker, the famed cultural-anthropologist wrote a best-selling book in 1973, The Denial of Death, which was all about how our character is essentially formed around the process of denying our own mortality, that this denial is a necessary component of functioning in the world; we are not aware of this, of course, but knowing all about this will help us gain genuine self-knowledge. According to Becker, much of the evil in the world was a consequence of people needing to deny death. And would you believe that just a few months after the book was published Becker himself died? Two months later he received (posthumously) the Pulitzer Prize. That is pretty existentially weird, if you ask me.
Dealing with Time
I am a big fan of wisdom proverbs and sayings across cultures and time, only I don’t always remember where I got them from. For example, I thought I remembered picking up “It’s later than you think”, from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, from the famous Buddhist teacher (later disgraced for sexual and financial misconduct), Sogyal Rinpoche, only to find that it isn’t there. A google search led me to this rather silly (but nonetheless wise) refrain which was sung by Guy Lombardo in 1949:
To me at least, “It’s Later than you think”, goes far beyond some guy playing big band music for people getting drunk on New Year’s Eve. There is something much more compelling and existential about time that alludes us. Krista Tippet, the founder of one of my favorite podcasts of all time-On Being, said it wonderfully:
”Today, I’m going to talk about time. I don’t really think there’s any more fascinating subject. And there’s surely been nothing more intriguing in all the years of On Being than coming close to people who think and work and help the rest of us get inklings of the different scales and forms of the true nature of time.
There is geological time, deep time, cosmic time, evolutionary time. The ancient Greeks had two very different words for time. One is Kronos, and that is time as we feel it in our bodies and in our lives, and have tried to organize our world around. That is the stuff of clocks and calendars, time as we can measure and plan and really want to rely on as kind of an arrow that’s always moving forward.
And then there is Kairos time. This is an inbreaking — a moment that disrupts everything that came before, everything you thought you knew. It can be the telephone ringing, and hearing something that will change it all. Kairos moments are these pivot points when the questions you are asking, holding, living, utterly change. Life is suddenly, unalterably defined, separated into a Before and an After. When we speak of a Kairos moment, it’s a “moment” with a capital “m” — it can be a minute; it can be a century. And I’ve come to feel increasingly that this is a way to speak of this young century we inhabit, this post-2020 world: we are in a Kairos moment as a species.”
Kronos helps me. Even when I go to my yoga classes multiple times each week, I always have my watch near my mat. I wonder if others do that, I think not many do. For me, the Kronos of it all helps me pace myself, gives me a sense of where I am.
But it is the Kairos of life that really fascinates and scares me. Inescapable and unforgettable.
I want to write about Tali. I think I need to write about Tali.
I met Tali in 2007 when she was in her mid-twenties, a bright girl who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia when she was 9 years old. We met as part of an informal program to coach Ethiopian college students as volunteers, to help them manage their time and navigate their lives while they were getting ready to launch their careers. For Tali and others this was no simple task; she was from a disadvantaged family, estranged from her father, her mother worked three jobs in cleaning houses to put bread on the table. As I coached Tali I got to know a very sensitive young woman who was drawn to self and spiritual development as well as “getting a degree” to enter the work world. We worked together some months and then parted ways. Over the subsequent years Tali would every so often contact me for a conversation- I was glad that she was working, making a life for herself, within time she had begun her own family becoming a mother to two children. She had come a very long way.
One day, less than two years ago, Tali sent me a message that she had fallen ill with cancer but I should know that she is being well-taken care of and the prospects are good. I was shaken by this communication, even tearfully so, and asked how I could be of any help. She told me that she would like to write stories about her life for the benefit of her children. I immediately offered to help with this, but Tali disappeared again for some months. When I reached out eventually, we talked and decided that we could do a series of interviews on Zoom, so that there would be a recording from which she or her family members could always see or write a book from. I preferred that as it would save me the travel time and parking challenges that I dreaded taking on myself. And so it was.
Tali and I met on Zoom for 5 hours, once a week, taking us mostly to her native Ethiopia and what it was like to grow up in a secluded rural village, with no running water or electricity, no roads and hardly a car. Tali shared that as a child she had never gone to school, did not learn to read, had basically one or two pieces of clothing- and was absolutely happy with her life! She told me: “I was a small child who spent all day in nature with animals, friends, I just loved every day…of course, I had no idea what was going on in the ‘grown up world’, but my life was carefree and I did not feel that I was missing a thing.” How interesting this was for me, I felt privileged being able to help Tali shared all of this. She then went on to tell about the difficult stages of leaving her rural abode, how her mother and siblings went through hardships in making the transition to Israel after many months of waiting.
What was most sad for Tali was her meeting with Israeli society after immigration. She expressed her disappointment that her Israeli peers were just not very interested in what Ethiopian children had to tell of their past, nor were they very interested in really befriending them as equals. Alas, they came to Israel as Jews but were quickly marginalized as “blacks” or “primitives” or whatever term was given them by some- perhaps most- in Israel, the Jewish state. Tali was not embittered but it was important for her that her children should know where they come from, that there was much to appreciate in the life that she had left, and that they too have roots they can be proud of.
After our fifth meeting, I felt I was getting too busy and that I would need to devote more time to my doctoral studies, that we perhaps had “done the job” for now, that we could take a break for a while. I told Tali that she could always come back to me if she had more to share and document. Tali seemed a bit surprised at first but quickly reverted to telling me how much she appreciated our contact and what we had done. Feeling good about things, I thanked her as well and looked forward to having some time freed up on my schedule. We did not talk after that. I will always remember Tali’s attractive smiling face, bloated from the drugs she had taken, her head in a kerchief, a sign of the chemotherapy she had been given not too long ago.
About 7 weeks later, having just arrived back from a vacation in Albania, I asked a family relative who had been in touch with Tali over the past year (they had been in high school together), if she had heard from her. After a few seconds of silence she said, “I thought you knew”…I was stunned, how could it be? Tali had exuded such confidence in her recovery that I had taken it for granted. I immediately called her sister who had helped us set up the Zoom calls, since Tali was nearly blind for some time from her condition. Her sister warmly received my call (it was already a week after the shiva mourning): “You know I was wondering why you stopped meeting with Tali. I think just after your last call she went into a very steep decline and became very ill.”
I then realized what I had not realized before. It was much later than I thought. Only I did not know it. I was concerned about opening up some time in my calendar…I don’t know what I could have done- probably nothing- but the thought that I could have talked to Tali again, could have shown up, could have been there, hit me hard. Indeed it was much, much later than I had thought.
To be a child of Holocaust Survivors
I believe many people who know me also know that a little over 2 years ago, at the age of 61, I undertook a Phd program in Wisdom Studies from an online university that allowed me to do my doctoral dissertation on a topic that I am passionately interested in: Reflections of Children of Holocaust survivors in their second half of life. I have now interviewed 41 such people of the “second generation” and am currently navigating through the hundreds of pages of transcriptions, ramping up my ideas and sources to begin the writing of my dissertation which will be a labor of love (but certainly “labor”) that will involve many weeks. Each and every one of my interviewees tells a different story, replete with pain and sorrow as well amazement at how their parents managed to come through, despite it all.
One theme, among many others, is always there. It is the theme of the tragic day in which the lives of their parents were totally overturned from normality to one of fear, trepidation and impending doom. It is the moment of Kairos that can never be forgotten. Like the moment of June 30, 1941, in which my father’s life of a high-school student in the small Polish town of Zhetl ended, a “Kairos moment” which marked the beginning of the end of his family, hometown and life as he knew it. In a little over a year he and his sister would survive the Nazi killings- their parents, brother and sister would not.
It was time that separated the cultured and admired Germans they had known in the past from the bestial, barbaric Nazi Germans and collaborators of 1941.
Time comes and time leaves
Does all this have something to do with the fact that I will be 64 this year, and last year I was 63? Of course it does. But let’s not get confused here, it was the same playing field 50 and 60 years ago that it is now. What has changed- if anything- is the consciousness that we can bring to the process of living. To the preciousness of life, that in the end we all give much more attention to our bank accounts than we do to our “life-time accounts”. The former is helpful, we need it for life, but the latter is what dictates our life. Literally.
I recall from my childhood in the sixties when my late father would at times yell at us children lying around watching black and white comedy shows on TV, one after the other. “Get up, get up”, he would storm into the room, “you’re killing the day!”. I was always amazed at this phrase, I didn’t feel I was killing anybody, where did he get that from…only now I can certainly feel exactly what he felt. Especially since I repeated the exact same phrase with my children many years later!
It's later than you think, don’t waste time. You know that already, of course… Or do you?