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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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April 12th, 2010

What Works: More on the spirituality of being on time

What Works columnist Phil Fox Rose is interviewed about being on time on NET TV and responds to reader comments


Phil Fox Rose interviewed on the program Currents on the NET TV network. It’s queued up for the segment, but if that doesn’t work in your browser for some reason, it begins at 19:25.

Recently, I was interviewed for the show Currents on the NET TV network about the spirituality of being on time. Watch the video right here on this page; I’ve queued it up to my segment in the show. So that seems like a good enough reason to revisit my column, “Being On Time.” I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) when this became one of the most popular What Works columns.

It was a delight to do the interview with Nathalia Ortiz, and to see the co-anchors discussing the subject with her afterwards. Their comments, her questions to me, and the popularity of this column all underscore that so many of us struggle with being on time, and we want help!

Much of the feedback has been about realizing you are bothering others. So let me focus a little more sharply on the issue of selfishness. But before I do, let me stress that I’m not encouraging you to beat up on yourself. We are all selfish a lot of the time. What I’m encouraging is greater awareness.

Selfishness can take several forms. Many people who are late have a mixture of them.

Self-seeking is when you choose your own gain over the interests of others. It’s self-seeking behavior to maximize the productivity or convenience of your own time at the expense of other people’s schedules. Doctors, for example, do this on purpose, because their time has so much monetary value, and, well, they don’t care about yours — and, as with the chronically late, typically they get more and more behind schedule as the day progresses. (If you haven’t already figured this out, book doctor’s appointments in the morning, when they still might be close to their schedule.)

Self-centeredness, on the other hand, means you are so focused on yourself that you don’t even realize you’re harming others. It’s self-centered behavior to not notice that people are bothered or to not even consider that your lateness has an impact on their serenity or productivity. You’ve left them hanging for however long, unable to start a new project or go somewhere else. And even in relatively mild situations, there’s usually more harm done than you realize. If you arrive late at a movie theater or group dinner, everyone else has to absorb your frenetic energy as you come barging in — even the strangers at other seats or tables. You are making everyone else deal with your lateness, your distraction.

Rich offered a great simple antidote to self-centeredness in a comment on my original column: “I have learned that when I am heading for a particular place to meet folks, it is so important to keep them in mind as I travel. It helps. It beats setting your clock ten minutes ahead.” For Rich, it is enough to be present to the potential impact he will have on others by being late.

If you’re the late person, it’s extremely valuable to fully grasp how much of a bother you are being. And as I said in the in the TV interview, your unreliability contributes to a snowball affect of diminished trust all around you.

The shoe on the other foot

But one of the most interesting things to me about the comments I received was how many of the commenters vented their frustration with late people. Some even seem to have missed the point of my column a bit — or at least, ahem, the first line where I confessed that I am a person who struggles with being late!

The flip side of recognizing that you have character defects, that you are a flawed, fallen human being, is to be forgiving of character defects in others. Now that I’m usually on time, I’ve discovered how often other people are not! The shoe’s on the other foot now. I’m often the one waiting. When someone is late to meet me, I have no desire to punish them or to add to their stress. I understand how it happened — I’ve been there — and if I were late, would I want to be dealt with sharply? Instead, I’m forgiving and encourage them to put it behind them and relax so we can both enjoy our time together.

Cathyf said it well in a comment: “I think that it’s pretty important to avoid having emotional reactions to other people’s lateness. The only person you can change is yourself… the level of annoyance or disrespect — or charity and understanding — that you feel is the thing that you control.”

I like that she used the weighty word “charity,” caritas, and contrasted it with annoyance. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) Pope Benedict said, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with [God’s love].” If you see the world illuminated with love, you won’t be annoyed. This will come not as an imposed ethical choice not to be angry. Rather, you will simply see the frazzled, late person and want to alleviate their suffering.

The advice I give in “Being On Time” on what to do if you aim to be on time and end up early applies equally well if you are on time and the other person is late: “relax, sit quietly or take out something to read.” And, I will now add: And when they arrive, be gracious.

(And I’m not judging the judgers either! We all fall short of expressing God’s love in every step of our day. I’m just suggesting what I think is the ideal.)

Catherine made an interesting comment: “As I was reading, it occurred to me that all those ‘race against time’ formula movies we all grew up watching were so detrimental. Childish thrill, indeed!”

This is perhaps the dirty little secret for a lot of people who are late. I had mentioned the childish thrill of making it just in time in the earlier column. Catherine makes me wonder if this isn’t very deeply rooted. Like “crisis managers” who create rolling crises because they feel most alive and focused when things are at risk, how much of chronic lateness is really thrill seeking? It’s an interesting question. What do you think?

And what are your experiences with being late? With increasing your awareness of its impact on others? With how best to deal with people who are late on you? Share your thoughts and experiences here below in comments or email me at phil (AT) bustedhalo DOT com .

In addition to the full video above, you can see the segment by itself on NET‘s site here, The Spirituality of Time, and Nathalia’s blog post about her interview with me here, I’m Late!

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Matt

    I try to be forgiving, as God would want. But God, being omnipotent and outside time, has capabilities I don’t. I am not capable, by my own failures, of diminishing or impairing God. The same cannot be said of the alleged “friend” who agrees to pick me up at the airport at noon for a 2pm meeting an hour’s drive away, but can’t be bothered to appear outside the terminal until 1:30.

    My own intent to be on-time, however sincere it was, has been thoroughly thwarted in this situation. Forgiving her for the problems associated with standing outside an airport terminal in the cold Detroit January wind for an hour and a half, drawing stares and occasionally being questioned by the police (especially since 9/11, they don’t much care for people who hang around airports with no apparent business), is an exercise in the nearly superhuman level of charity that I aspire to but often fail to meet.

    But it’s not my place to forgive her for the disruptions to the lives of innocent third parties that cascades out from her lateness, through my own lateness, and then the lateness of the people who had to wait for ME, and then of the people who subsequently had to wait for THEM, and so on. All I can do for those people is offer my own sincere apologies, and try to rush through the business at hand so as to ensure that it is finished as close to on-time as possible, to minimize the cascade. Sometimes “as close as possible” is “not very close at all”, and then all I can do is hope I don’t inadvertently hurt _too_ many other people.

    I know I’m not without some past sins in this regard. And it was that January incident that inspired me to change my own ways.

  • Catholic

    Phil, this is great – I really enjoyed both articles, and find the “spirituality of being on time” deeply intertwined.

    I do, however, have 2 question I’d like to pose

    1. How long do you actually wait for a late person who hasn’t contacted you?
    2. How do you cope in a situation where one person is causing the group to arrive very late?

    It’s absolutely one thing to warmly receive someone who is 5ish minutes late, but quite another at the 15-20 minute mark. (As my parents ingrained in us “if you’re going to be late, call”)

    In the event the other person is 15-20 minutes late, and hasn’t contacted you, I don’t think it’s “selfish” to leave. Of course from that point, how you handle this person still necessitates a charitable attitude. Being peeved and correcting the late person can be done charitably as well.

    But in the second question, I’m not entirely clear how to handle that. I’ve been in that position before (I’m sure we all have!) and my goodness it feels so terrible to be sucked up into the late person’s chaos, and your body starts taking over with non-verbal communication – deep sighs, furrowed brow, bad vibes, etc! When I was in that situation semi-recently, I had to take several deep breaths, and prayed that I didn’t allow it to utterly ruin the day. But I think my question to that is – what could I have said (if anything) or done with the person causing the lateness? Or do you just let it go? I don’t mean in a “vengeful” way – but truly wanting to help the person see what their lateness is creating?

  • http://www.thejewspot.org Monica Rozenfeld

    Oh my gosh, thanks for this Phil. What a great piece. I have been known to be chronically late, and even worse, a flake. I blamed it on my Gemini-nature. Until one day someone near and dear to me decided that they will pick me up 3 hours late without any sort of apology on their end. It was more of an “I’m coming in 3 hours instead of 15 minutes like I promised originally” matter of fact comment. I was so upset that I actually cried about this. I found it to be so rude. And then I realized how many times I have done this to others, others who have planned their day around a set time we were supposed to meet, others who chose to spend time with me instead of any thing else they could be doing and I have the decency to show up late or call and cancel last minute. It’s a terrible feeling to be on the other side. Self-centered is thee perfect word for it. I was definitely self-centered in these situations. And I still can be. It’s a difficult habit to turn backwards. But I love how you have taken a spiritual approach to this! It’s so helpful in thinking about making my decisions around time.

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