In English we have only one word for time–we might as well call it “zombie time” because it’s dead and had a voracious appetite. The ancient Greeks understood time in two ways, and I think the recovery of this second kind of time might just be one of the cures for zombies–or a way that makes out culture a less hospitable for the incubation of the undead.
The first kind of time the Ancient Greeks identified is chronos, or ordinary time, in which one thing happens after another. The other is kairos.
Chronological time refers to clock time–time that can be measured in fixed units–seconds, minutes, hours and years. Kairos measures moments of flexible duration. Chronological time is divided up into past, present and future, but kairos is the present and has an eternal element. Chronological time is personified as Old Father Time carrying a scythe and an hourglass–it is a time that consumes all. Kairos time is personified as a young man, lithe and handsome–it is a time that suggests “ripeness is all” (Lear 5.2.11).
Chronological time, named after the titan who ate his children, destroys and consumes. In the Hobbit, Gollum’s riddle in the dark is about chronos time:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
There is a monstrous quality to chronological time. Chronos time is made up of the past that is already dead and the future that doesn’t yet exist–it’s both dead and incorporeal–spectral. To make matters worse, like Gollum says, it kills and consumes. It is a terrifying creature. Dead, but devouring and it never stops coming–like I said, zombie time.
Where chronos suggests zombie, kairos suggests the opposite–vitality and transcendence. Kairos is not about the past or the future, but about the present. If you think about it, the present is the only part of time that actually exists; it’s alive, and if you are experiencing it, you are alive too. The term kairos contains the idea that not all time is not a series of identical units. Sure there is the regular and mechanical passing of minutes, but there are also immeasurable moments that catch us by surprise, that bubble up from within time or flow into it from some where, or some when, else. These interruptions of ordinary time by higher time suggest a link with something transcendent.
When we think of time, we ought not only imagine the hour glass of chronos, but a lava lamp of kairos time–irregular and surprising.
Zombies exist because we have created an environment where they will thrive–part of this environment is the way we think of time. A culture which thinks of time as more than just mechanical–dead–is a culture where zombies are implausible. This is by no means the whole cure for zombies, but it is a start.