Mid-morning on a recent weekday and I’m in Safeway, cruising the aisles for milk, yogurt, tortillas and trying to get in and out as quickly as I can. I’m rattling my cart in the direction of the bread when I spot a woman I know from one of my 12-step meetings. She walks slowly, looking down at the glossy white linoleum. Curly dark hair frames her face; her brows are knit together, her mouth clamped in a tense line. I notice her outfit: Under a frilly black vintage dress and cropped leather jacket she’s wearing combat boots.
We’re not close or anything, just acquaintances really, and my first impulse is to dive down the closest aisle to avoid contact, especially because the last time I saw her she was having a pretty hard time. My palms start to sweat on the cart as I try to swing it left but it’s too late — we’re practically on top of each other. She looks up and catches my eye and I surrender to the fact that she and I are here at the back of the store, standing in front of the wall of cold cases stacked with butter and cheese and Sunny D. There’s just no getting around it.
“Hey, M,” I say, pasting a social smile on my face. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
It takes her a second to place me but then she does. “Oh, hey, Kate.”
“How are you doing?”
I watch her consider how to answer my question, weighing her choices. She could tell me what’s really true for her right now, or she could tell me some parallel, packaged version, or she could just say hello and keep going. She takes a deep breath and goes for it.
“Actually, in four hours I’m going into residential treatment,” she says.
“I just need more help.”
Her honesty pops my social anxiety bubble and jolts me right into the moment with her. Instead of bracing for an awkward social interaction I melt into it, grateful that we’re bumping into each other right at this moment of heightened stress and tension for her and honored that she’s trusting me with it. We don’t know each other well, but we’re getting real in the middle of Safeway. I ask if I can hug her and she nods and we embrace and when we step back her eyes are full of tears.
“I’m freakin’ out right now,” she says.
“Of course you are.”
“But it’s the right thing to do.”
“You’re very brave.”
“That’s not how it feels,” she says, and we hug again. Then she says goodbye and walks away.
Soon after this encounter I’m in church and the pastor is talking about the two words for time the Greeks used: chronos and kairos. Chronos is chronological time, while kairos describes those moments “out of time” in which something special happens. She points out that chronos moves along in the horizontal plane: It’s where we all live most of the time, that human past-and-future place that connects us to each other but also offers many, many opportunities for regret and anxiety and fear and fantasy about stuff that hasn’t even happened yet. Kairos, on the other hand, is “vertical time” — the raw, unfiltered, infinite present where God lives. When I’m able to tap into kairos my sense of time expands and sometimes I can experience one of those flashes of joy that puts everything into perspective.
That morning in Safeway M was in pain and I’m sorry for that. But because she decided to be honest about it she gave both of us a gift: temporary release from chronological time and all its carefully crafted illusions of self-sufficiency, as well as a literal reminder that in kairos, we’re not alone in our struggles. In that “vertical space” where past and future don’t exist but God is in everything, our pain can be witnessed and held. Even in the most ordinary moments, standing by the cold cases at Safeway.