Recently I was pulled aside by an older gentleman as I was leaving a restaurant. He commented on how well-behaved the girls were and how nice it was to be seated near our table. It was the perfect compliment at the perfect time. Earlier in the afternoon I had suspected that they actually were feral little creatures -- really cute ones, of course -- but I didn't admit this to the man. I just thanked him with a wide, goofy grin on my face and walked with a lilt in my step back to our van.
Sometimes the smallest encouragement at precisely the right time can make a large difference in someone's day.
This man's well-timed compliment reminded me of the concept of kairos, something that I teach in one of my rhetoric classes. In simplest form, kairos is a way of looking at time -- not chronologically, but rather in terms of opportunity. Kairos is an opportune time, an advantageous time, a critical time when acting or speaking out acting can make a difference.
Sometimes it's easier to understand kairos by looking at its absence rather than its fulfillment. We've all had moments when we can't think of what to say, only to come up with the perfect words moments later as we're walking away from the situation. But by then we're too late. The words are no longer timely, no longer appropriate. The window of opportunity has shut. We've missed kairos.
Last week I recorded an essay that I had written for our local radio station's This I Believe program. When I finally listened to the recording, I cringed a little. I'm unaccustomed to the sound of my own voice. Even though the producer assured me that a slow speaking rate is best for the ease of listeners, in my estimation, my pacing was too slow at the onset -- the verbal equivalent of taking a walk with my two-year-old up our street when she gets sidetracked by pebbles and individual blades of grass, a pace where I'm glad to be holding onto the stroller for stability since it's easy to lose balance when it takes that long to put my left foot in front of my right.
Yes, that slow.
I thought about it throughout the day, not entirely satisfied with how I had done.
That night I had the girls at the park again. A lovely older woman stopped to let my girls pet her dog, and we began to talk. At the tail end of our conversation, she sideswiped me with this comment:
"I was listening to you speak with you girls before I stopped. You have a very gentle way of talking with them, a very kind voice."
Right then and there, I was amazed. Exactly when I had been harping on a perceived deficiency, this stranger suggested that it was a strength.
A kind voice. I'll take that.
What a timely word.