The Selfishness of Being Late

©, CC

©, CC

Before the holidays I shared two posts about one of my favorite subjects, the spirituality of being on time: Being On Time and 6 Tips for Being On Time. I talk frequently about this subject, and a lot of the feedback I get is about how eye-opening it is to realize you are bothering others. So let me focus a little more sharply on that aspect of the subject, on 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 and your concerns that you don’t even realize you’re harming others. It’s self-centered behavior to not notice 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 trivial situations, there’s usually more harm done than you realize. As I said in Being On Time:

If you arrive late at a movie theater or group dinner, everyone else has to absorb your frenetic energy as you come barging in — sometimes even the strangers at other seats or tables. You are making everyone else deal with your lateness, your distraction.

Rich, a reader of a column of mine on this subject years ago offered a great simple antidote to self-centered lateness: “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 chronically late, it’s extremely valuable to fully grasp how much of a bother you are being. And to recognize that your unreliability gradually diminishes the trust others have for you.

Another great reader comment from the past came from Catherine, who said: “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’ve mentioned the childish thrill of making it just in time before. 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 have you experienced increasing your awareness of the impact of your lateness on others? Did it change your behavior? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences here below in comments, and they might be helpful to others too.

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About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has 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 by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I have always struggled with being late. In thinking about why this is so and how to overcome it, I’ve learned three things about myself. The first is that I had extreme anxiety about being early. The reason being that I experienced a lot of rejection in my life and one of the ways of coping with it was to appear not to care too much about anyone who might reject me. Which I had subconciously defined as any breathing human being. Showing up early displayed a level of eagerness which caused me a lot of anxiety, so I would try to show up just in time or a bit late. Once I realized that this was the problem, I of course realized how silly it was and refused to let myself give into anxiety at the idea of being early.

    The other reason was that I have always moved more slowly than other people. It is difficult for me not to notice the details around me and so I was often slowed by simply being present and observant. This is what makes me a good writer, but doesn’t do much for getting me through a grocery store quickly. I tend to make note of everything and know the exact price of every item in my cart. It’s not intentional and doesn’t generlly interfere with anything in my life the way OCD would, but it does make me slow and I have to be very focused and intentional to overcome it. And of course, being slow can easily translate into being late. As I get older and encounter fewer new, novel things and can make more decisions on auto-pilot this has become less problematic, but it will always be part of being me.

    The third reason is that I intentionally choose to overlook pretty much everything short of abuse which other people do that could be offensive, self-centered or whatever. I do realize that it’s not really my right to decide for another person what they ought to extend grace for, but the reality is I’ll let it go if you snap at me, say you will do something and don’t, listen to the same story 30 times, tolerate your endless complaints about things you refuse to do anything to change, overlook when a person’s mindlessly insulting, deal with your crappy mood over something that happened hours ago, etc. I’ve always been extremely sensitive so learning not to be continually upset by other people’s boarishness took a lot of work. Being late is my one persistant social faux pas. (I have other faults, but this is the one thing I do which is taxing on people other than myself.) Being extremely tolerant myself makes it difficult for me to see someone who can’t extend the small grace of overlooking a 5 minute delay in my arrival as anything other than churlish. Which is probably wrong, but there it is.

    I have gotten much better at this over the years, mostly by contiually reminding myself of how quickly time moves. When I get my girls ready to catch the bus I check the clock about 15 times in the 10 minutes prior to them walking out the door to keep myself paced properly. And as I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I have figured out exactly how long things take so I can actually time things so I regularly arrive during the last preview at the movie rather than right after it’s started. And I promise to overlook the fact that you keep shifting around in your seat and dropping popcorn during the movie if you not be irritated that I’m screwing with your vibe by not being seated before the previews start, k?

    • Phil Fox Rose

      Rebecca, thanks for your thoughtful comments. If you didn’t notice it, I said very clearly in my earlier piece, , that I’ve struggled my whole life with being late, and one of the main reasons is one you mention. I totally relate to being present to the moment and things in my environment or side thoughts distracting me from the linear process of getting out the door and where I’m going on time. I accept this as a fact about myself, and celebrate it as a gift — part of being a creative non-linear type of thinker. But my lateness is still potentially inconveniencing others. You talked about how accommodating you are of other people’s inconsiderateness and/or cluelessness and that being late was your only persistent social issue that bothers others. I sympathize with your frustration, but if I may gently observe, while you say you are not bothered when others are “offensive, self-centered or whatever” the way you talk about it sounds like you are. I don’t see that the one has anything to do with justifying the other. But I’m only offering suggestions to help folks if they want to change. If you are at peace with the balance in your life, then that’s great. FYI, I included a mention of your comments in my latest followup post: . Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Also, fwiw, the expection of timeliness is a very culturally specific thing. In many (probably most) parts of the world a lot of tardiness is expected and when friends get together, you get there when you get there. If someone is late, that’s just a chance to socialize, spend some time enjoying one’s surroundings or get a few minutes to yourself. People who get upset at those who are late are viewed as having an over-inflated sense of their own worth. It’s a mindset which given my natural way of being holds a lot of appeal for me. But then again, I come from a family where holiday dinners were expected to start at least an hour late and showing up right on time was being rude to the host who almost certainly could use a few minutes grace to complete their preperations. Being on time was a concession we made to the outside world’s hang-ups. We tend to be day dreamers. We’re productive in important ways, but not the best widget makers or time keepers. But, just saying that there are other ways of looking at the issue than simply declaring people selfish.

    • Heather G

      Most cultures in the world do not think of time the same way that Westerners do. If one throws a party in Mexico or Africa at 3:00 pm, it is actually considered rude to show up at 3:00 (unless you are coming to help set up for the party.) Most guests will trickle in somewhere between 4:00 and 5:00. It is hard for Westerners to grasp the thought processes here but to show up late would be to come around 8:00.
      It is important to understand that throughout most of human history, this is the way that humans viewed “time” and understood appointments. When you are letting the sun be your guide, rather than a digital clock, time is “fuzzy” not exact. It is only in the industrial age where people started using timeclocks and time became money that our idea of “you’re three minutes late!” even had any context. But this system has some tinges of oppression and control involved – it’s a system where every minute matters and in this context, showing up “late” is considered robbery of someone’s very monetizable time.
      But humans aren’t really wired for this – this is a recent, artificially construed imposition of carefully metered time measurements on human activities. Most of the world STILL runs on a much more fuzzy sense of time – even visiting a church in the USA from a third world culture, one will find that while church officially “starts” at 10am, most of the congregation is trickling in between 11 and 12 – and church is over around 2 or 3. (As part of a grad student project I spent time visiting an Ethiopian congregation in the USA to study such things.)
      So – I think if we are going to have more natural and organic relationships with people, we might want to consider that not everyone’s internal sense of time has completely adjusted to the factory-time mindset of modern Western culture. It’s not quite what our DNA is wired for, and while we might struggle to get to work on time in the morning (and some of us aren’t even good at doing THAT) when it comes to our relationships in the body of Christ, I do think we should be a lot more permissable of our humanity and more friendly towards the ebbs and flows of peoples’ “natural time” rather than “digital time” when we consider what it means to be “on time.”
      When we make room for the Spirit in our interactions, I have more often than not found that when one person is late, the other person is generally late *at the same time*. Or when one person is late, the other person finds themselves in a divine appointment with someone else. When we hold a strict “time” over one another’s heads, we can often forbid one another to follow the ebb and flow of the Spirit in his unexpected interruptions to our plans as well.

      • Phil Fox Rose

        Heather, thanks for your comment. These are very valid points, and I agree that our culture is way too attached to the idea that time is money. But that cuts both ways. Nowadays I am sometimes very early, which the time-is-money mentality would see as “wasting” my own time, but I don’t value my time that much. The bottom line is that we don’t live in Africa or the Middle Ages, and if the people you’re interacting with have certain expectations about time, then you either respect those expectations or you don’t. I wrote about this and included mention of your comment in my latest post: Thanks again!

      • Emily P Crespo

        Amen heather.
        On my own I probably won’t permanently be on time to the exact tick.
        but if you have a car accident in front of my house I will be the first person to give you CPR correctly until paramedics arrive. It’s not about selfishness, it’s about values. I don’t value the exactness more than the content of my character once I walk in the door and begin my work. And I surely prefer the spirit of a party being sincere more than precise. Someone convince me that being on time is spiritually superior to waiting for the right moment, or seeing how things go…Please.
        I didn’t always know about Mexican time, or Middle Eastern time, or know that here in the United States there was a different sense of time expectancy. I only knew about the way time felt in my family. I knew the way it felt getting somewhere. And like Ms. Trotter above, it was about rejection. Why would a child learn to like arrivals when the arrivals are always met with snickering and cruelty? Of course the story doesn’t end there, but it does begin to explain why there is no ingrained positive time sense in some abused or mistreated children. Often there really is more for some people to do in their days as well. We had to start fires to eat some mornings, push start our old cars and change mud spattered clothes before school, or help our mother dress and feed the other 8 children before 11 o’clock mass. What is fifteen minutes? Fifteen minutes wouldn’t have made the difference between respect and disdain in my life. It was always about clothes and money. If you had lectured me on timeliness at age nine I would have silently thought of my difficult life and dismissed you for another person who didn’t understand.
        But when I joined the military there weren’t any problems getting to formation on time; at first. En masse movements are hard to miss. It is just different when you are in a group that is on time. Many decisions were not in my hands. Once I had a little more freedom, the time sense seemed to slip away. Maybe it was the details that intrigued, maybe it was the way my heart rushing thrills, but it never seemed quite possible to click in everyday at exactly the same time. I can only guess at why I feel an unconscious urge to leave room for life swerves. It leaves an artistry up to me, is my best guess.
        When I was a waitress, I enjoyed the balance of tasks because it was mine to arrange how I saw fit. There was more of a respect for my personal sense of propriety, and perfection in the content of the experience I offered; leaving room for spirit to create the timing that most befit the pleasure and coincidence of the things a customer was party to than a ticking clock at my back. This was a rush and a continuous balance. I made an effort to be there at an appointed time before my shift. I always did and continue to, but I failed regularly. I did not want this to be a problem and I did not wish to have to go about judging others for not being exactly on time. I wanted to take things in stride. We all do, don’t we?
        Cars take longer to fix than expected, traffic backs up, Doctors keep you waiting, Children soil diapers in the doorway, things come up, people fail to show for their appointed times, bills don’t even arrive on time sometimes, and leeway is practically the currency of things that I observe. But the lateness problem written about in these comments is usually so bad that it makes people suffer, so my justification that dystemporality is in ‘the way of things’ is not sufficient. If it was understood that lateness was ‘in the way of things,’ then there would not be this pain for me or for these others and there would not be such lashes delivered to late people in our culture. The human beings who are upset about lateness are making a statement about their wish to rise just a little above the ‘way of thing’ if they can help it. Thus the bosses, thus the guilt-complexes. The problem is, that this is an unconscious process for many of the people involved.
        When a person feels the right to be snide, snappy, or mean because I am late, I apologize for their inconvenience. I know that sometimes there is no way that the timing could be worse for a person. This too, is part of the spirit of things though. I guess we in the West do our best to leave spirit out of time arrangements so that the balance is fair when we meet our appointments. Yes it’s true that as a Western adult I ought to give myself the chance to get the best shake. And yes, I’d rather not hurt or put out the people I deal with. But I don’t think that being late should be treated with shock, disgust, and carte blanche. There is a stigma to lateness that is part of our culture that sticks in my throat.
        For a boss to give a cruel earful, or for a person to be looked at as selfish or lazy for being late is condescending and perhaps just narrow minded. It should be looked at with more of a divine eye. Who is to say what time is right? As an observer of synchronicity, I find that it is true that people run late together, or that the gift of the actual time turns out to be much more important than the piddly few minutes of perfect timing. I’d rather spend an hour with a person who knows how to listen, but who comes in fifteen minutes late, than spend five minutes with a bored, utterly dull, timely person who is reliable in all their qualities. That Frances had to feel horrid for the remainder of her day because she was late to work, unable to make it better in her own eyes or her supervisors by doing good work, is a testament to the temporal perfectionism of this culture. She found a way to make it work by putting her lateness elsewhere. And so the slack exists elsewhere and she can finally live without feeling depressed about herself. But did she have to suffer like that?
        The inability to be on time is treated like a serious illness that goes untreated and causes people a lot of suffering. Which is it? Is it a cultural norm that some don’t fit into, or is it a personal illness?

        ((((Of course there are several careers which require perfect timing. I am only referring to the kinds of things which don’t require exactness for any reason except exactness’ sake. I would make no such claim for neurosurgeons, pharmacists, chemists, weapons systems analysts, remote drone operators, air traffic controllers, or photo developers. There are processes which have time of the essence, are clearly operating with control of synchronicity. )))))

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  • Frances

    I used to be chronically late. Every day, I would be ten minutes late for work. Every day I felt I tried my best to be on time, and when I fell short of the mark I was very very hard on myself for my “failure” to live up to this virtue. The pain from beating myself up inside every morning as I walked in having failed once again, was immense, a horrible emotional state with which to start a day’s work

    At some point, a supervisor was appointed to talk to me about this daily lateness. I confess that in my pride it bothered me a lot that almost none of the work I did so diligently and well while I was there counted to compensate for this being late. None of my willingness to stay and make up the time after work, or work during lunch periods counted. Yet, I could not plead my case aloud because I DID agree that one ought to arrive on time, and that other people — good workers too — were able to achieve it, so just being a good employee was not enough cover me.

    Dejected, I walked away from the meeting asking myself how on earth — when I had been trying my best, and when I truly wanted to be on time, and when I was as mad at myself about it as they were — was I EVER going to manage to comply with what my supervisor had requested of me?

    Then I got an idea. I happened to work in a building that had a chapel on the first floor where they had mass every day at 8:30. I would arrive and attend daily mass, and then take the elevator up to my job and be on time!!

    So, guess what happened? Every day I found myself 10 minutes late for mass. I began to hate myself for my failure to arrive at mass on time. I beat myself up inside because I wasn’t getting it right.

    One morning, while I was standing on the bus holding the strap and being particularly brutal to myself about the fact that I was yet again going to be 10 minutes late for mass, the noise of my self-flagellation was interrupted by a very gentle, sweet, soft, exceedingly kind voice heard in the depths of my soul.

    “It’s okay, Frances. You can be late for me.”

    In that moment a great peace flooded me. I learned that somewhere in the universe was a force that didn’t judge me the way people around me judged me, or the way I was judging myself. This voice that spoke to me gave me permission to have a fault/failing and not have stones thrown at me. Especially this voice stopped me from throwing stones at myself!

    Anyway, years later I did learn why I was late all the time and was able to correct it. In my case, it was a misunderstanding about how much time I needed to leave for things to go wrong. I had been failing to calculate in EXTRA time. I discovered that I needed to leave twice as much time as it took to get ready to leave. For example, if it took 10 minutes to get ready, I needed to leave myself 20. I also discovered that I needed extra travel time. For example, if it took 20 minutes to get somewhere, I needed to leave 40 minutes travel time. Also, the longer it took to get somewhere, the more extra time I needed to leave.

    Last but not least, I needed to learn that in order to be on time, I needed to plan to arrive EARLY. That being on time was not the goal, but actually being early was, because if you aim to be ON TIME and you miss, you will be late. But if you aim to be EARLY and miss, you will most likely be on time! Therefore, if something starts at 8:00, I would need to arrive at 7:50 in order to be on time. That’s something I had never been formally taught, and never realized, and once I learned it, it was a complete revelation to me. I was amazed that I had not understood this and that other people knew it and I didn’t. Oh, well. I know it now. But there was a lot of pain before I got there.

    BTW, the motivating force for me to finally figure it all out was my children. When it came time for them to go to school, I recognized that for them to arrive late would put them at a disadvantage and possibly detract from their being successful. I knew I needed to figure the late thing out once and for all, for their benefit.

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