LONDON: Today is the day of clover, according to the French revolutionary calendar: 30 June is normally the day of the artichoke but, as 2012 is a leap year, all the days slip their moorings a little. Each day honours a plant, animal, mineral or the occasional gardening tool, and other June days include cornflower, chamomile and honeysuckle, while December includes shovel, peat, coal and bitumen.

This calendar draws the mind towards the seasonal qualities of time, but modernity has an obsession with its numerical measurement - quantitative rather than qualitative, fascinated, for instance, by today's leap second, when horologists of the world unite to add an extra second in order to “correct” the slight “lateness” of the Earth on its rotation Clearly, many branches of science need an exquisite precision of timekeeping and the infinitesimal decimals of calibration, so space launches, for instance, are not scheduled for leap-second dates. But society as a whole neither needs that obsessive time measurement nor is well served by it. Clock measurement is not time itself. In fact, so opposed are they that one could argue the clock is not a synonym, but the opposite of time. For time is found in the natural world: in the seasons of the human soul; in the unclockable reverie of a child or the flash of an artist's sudden insight. Time is found in the calibration of the individual to the timing of a collective endeavour, the social grace that less clock-bound societies must practise.

The ancient Greeks had different gods for different aspects of time (including the god of the moment for weeding). One of the most important gods was Chronos, strict clock-time - who would certainly be the god of the leap second - the god of linear, quantifiable chronological time. But there is another, Kairos, who represents not so much time as timing, the god of opportunity, chance or mischance. Kairos gives his name to kairological time, which is coloured differently at different moments; a qualitative sense of time, enlivened, various, elastic and fertile. Kairos would be the god of reverie, of social grace, the god of the right moment. In that spirit, the South African San hunters say they do not, and cannot, schedule when to hunt but rather “wait for the moment to be lucky”, sensitively judging the right time - when the time is “ripe”, as the English language says.

The clock, for all its precision in measurement, is a blunt instrument for the psyche and for society. Schedules can replace sensitivity to the mood of a moment, clock time can ride roughshod over the emotions of individuals. Strict timekeeping for children reduces their opportunities for reverie which, scientists say, is vital for creativity and complex problem-solving. “For creativity, you need your mind to wander,” says daydream expert Dr Schooler of the University of California. An obsession with timekeeping provokes some of the most insidious and (literally) chronic domestic difficulties, particularly between clockworked parents and their kairologically inclined children.

Sami people in Norway (and many other cultures) let their children be in control of their own time, saying that it increases their sense of self-reliance and independence. Young people who were captains of their own hours would, I was told, grow up less easily pressured by others, in ways far beyond timekeeping.

As a society obsessed with time measurement, we risk not only ignoring the daydreaming needs of unpunctual children, and missing out on a natural calendar and a social sense of the “ripe” time, but more sinisterly we practise — daily, hourly and minutely — a collective servility, a chronic habit of obedience to a machine of our own invention.

By arrangement with the Guardian


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