Jennifer L. Phillips, Ph.D.

Hi. I'm Jenny Phillips, executive coach and chaplain.

I specialize in coaching that honors work and life.

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Unfolding

I recently finished Amor Towles’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. In it, he uses the word “unfold” to describe many things - from a work day, to some mischief, to a daring plan, to political movements, to a mood, to life itself. I love this little word. 

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“Unfolding" gets its power by gesturing to mystery.

It is seductive: a secret, yet to be revealed, and a promise of understanding…eventually. It evolves and progresses according to a logic that is not always clear. We wait, and we watch.

Our part in unfolding entails more than simple patience, however. It is one thing to wait patiently in comfort, but are we wrong to desire the swift deliverance of justice, or peace? Certainly not. To be present with unfolding, as I mean it, is not to wait passively. 

To accommodate both a slow burn and a fiery spirit, it helps to think expansively about time. 

Normally, “time” signifies linear increments that pass predictably: weeks, months, years, and so on. This definition of sequential time is accurate, of course, as we know well from its hold on our daily lives. 

Yet, according to physicist Carlo Rovelli, “Time is a multilayered, complex concept…The temporal structure of the world is different from the naïve image that we have of it.” For example, did you know that time moves slightly faster at higher altitudes? (Yes, those of us living in the mountains are aging faster than you at the beach.) But that is just one factoid; his latest book (below) will really blow your mind.

More in my wheelhouse, philosophers and theologians also have a framework that captures time’s complexity. They contrast what the ancient Greeks named “Kronos,” or sequential time, with “Kairos,” or moments that transcend the worldly march of past, present, and future. Ancient cultures embodied this with festival days that disrupted daily life, a practice we continue today with, for example, our holiday celebrations. Kairos also signifies opportune, history-making moments that confront us with what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.”

To see what I mean experientially, recall a joy so fleeting it was bittersweet, or an agonizingly slow wait, or an emotion so fierce that time actually seemed to stop in its grip. Such encounters teach us that time is significantly more complex (diverse, textured, and beautiful) than our calendars make it seem. It can speed up and slow down, and sometimes it dissolves entirely. 

When we attend to this complexity, we begin to see that our stories, and our collective story, unfold as a dance, not a march. 

Though we can’t always choose the song, we can decide how to engage with it. It is within our power to waltz with grace, tango with passion, rage against the machine, or quietly share in the groove. Either way, in the legendary spirit of the (very much alive) George Clinton, “Welcome to station W-E-F-U-N-K.”

This isn’t always easy or as fun as it sounds. The superficial urgency of Kronos is a burden. Even when we know better and want differently, it is hard to forsake the daily grind for the disruptive spirit of Kairos. Scary, even. Risky. This condition is generally not conducive to patience, observation, and waiting. Nor is it fertile ground for passion and energy. The obstacles to our being present with unfolding are significant. 

However, I believe we can open ourselves to it — and we should. As religious studies professor Lonnie Kliever put it, "We can temper our fear and our fixation on sequential time. We can deepen our quest and our experiences of numinous time. In such synchronicity of kronos and kairos lies our deepest consolation and our steepest aspiration." (my emphasis) 

We cannot will ourselves to such fullness.

Nor can we manufacture it. To do so would defeat the thing on its own terms. However, we can explore, prepare, and hope. We can pause to acknowledge each unfolding, no matter how tiny, how fleeting, or even how ugly. We can bring heart to the dance.

In that spirit, my hope for today is that we become more sensitive and open to both our personal unfoldings and the larger, shared one. May we be heartened by the wisdom we find there and quickened by the experience.


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