How Chronic Pain Changes Our Experience of Time
I am a student of the primary biblical languages (Hebrew/Greek). One of the differences between languages is how verbs reflect time. English is a very “tense” conscious language. One of the earliest concepts we learn as elementary students is the difference between past, present, and future tenses.
Other languages aren’t necessarily this way. The tense in Hebrew can often only be determined by context. The Hebrew language focused more on “aspect” than tense. Aspect is the type of action the verb indicates. Is it a completed action? Then the verb will be inflected in the perfect form. Is it an incomplete action from the past or future? Then it will be conjugated as an imperfect verb. Accepting the risk of being overly simplistic, if Hebrew is on one end of tense emphasis spectrum (that is, very little) and English on the other, then Greek might fall somewhere in the middle.
Why this excursion into the grammatical concepts of time and tense? It is a reminder that attitudes about time are largely cultural. Languages do not even express concepts about time in the same way. This is a healthy reminder to any who have been made to feel of little value because they cannot produce in keeping with the cultural expectations of Western society that you are more than a bang for your buck ratio. Cultural attitudes about time and productivity are relative to the culture that gives them birth. They do not represent a universal value or worth.
Koine (Biblical) Greek uses two primary words for time. According to the gold standard dictionary for Koine Greek (often abbreviated BDAG), kairos means “a point of time, time, period, frequently with the implication of being especially fit for something and without emphasis on precise chronology.” When you say something like, “This has been a season of sadness for my family,” you are talking about kairos time.
The other Greek word for time is one that you are probably familiar with, even if you didn’t realize it is Greek. Chronos is where we get our word chronology and, of course, chronic, as in chronic pain. Here’s what BDAG has to say about chronos: “an indefinite period of time during which some activity or event takes place, time, period of time…a long time.” When we think about sequential ongoing time, we are thinking about chronos time. Chronic pain is pain that goes on for a long time and for usually an indefinite period of time.
Chronic pain and illness usually impacts the season of our lives, the kairos time. When I am in a flare, that defines not only the sequence of time but the quality of my time. It is damaging to my kairos. Chronic pain is usually defined as pain that is ongoing for at least six months even after an injury or illness has been treated. Most of you reading this are long past that initial six months and are stuck with ongoing and undefined pain.
I recently saw someone lamenting on Twitter about her battle with chronic pain. It was new, and she still hoped for a cure. Yet, she already understood for the first time in her life that chronic pain is no laughing matter. The constant battle with pain and limitation will tax your mental and emotional energy like few things can. If we have to endure it at all, we want our pain to be a season, when in reality it has been chronic.
However, after experiencing chronic pain for a long period of time (chronos), we begin to understand time (kairos) in a different way. We understand that time is valuable not because of a clock but because it is limited. We are mortal, and that clock is ticking whether we acknowledge it or not. Those in chronic pain face their mortality on a consistent basis. And through their pain, comes the grace and wisdom experienced only in suffering.
Senator Ben Sasse wrote in his book The Vanishing American Adult, “Suffering offers us a wake-up call. It imparts patience and humility and puts us in our proper place as servants and stewards of something greater than ourselves.” As you witness others around you who are still under the influence of the lie that everything is under their control, thank God that you have been delivered from that delusion.
Perhaps, it is ironic that in losing our mastery over time (chronos) we finally learn how to “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16, Paul uses kairos in this verse). In other words, we learn what is important and how to make our limited time count for what really matters.
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