One recent afternoon Jeff and I arranged to meet at a beach near our house for a swim. I had finished work a little earlier than usual, and I figured I’d be able to get there by 4:15.
By 3:30 I had checked off everything on my to-do list and was almost set to go. I couldn’t believe it—for once I was early! Here’s where I made a critical error. With a few minutes to spare, against my better judgment, I decided to check my email.
The next half hour disappeared like water on a hot griddle.
I didn’t leave the house until two minutes before our agreed meeting time. I had forgotten I needed to let the dog out, and I almost drove off without the bathing suits and towels.
On my way to the beach, I mulled over what to tell Jeff. “I’m sorry. I had an email I couldn’t ignore.” This wasn’t true. Was it really worth telling a lie?
Okay, how about, “Time got away from me.” But how exactly did that happen? Nope, time had ticked along as it always does.
Chastened, I faced the truth. As I parked next to Jeff’s truck, 20 minutes late, I got out and said, “I’m really sorry. I let time get away from me.”
Jeff looked at me and grinned. “So what else is new?” he said.
I mention this because it seems to me that people lie more about why they’re late than anything else in their lives. Americans can be terrible time managers—especially when they try to make room in their schedules for volunteer work. When we get behind schedule, we often shade the truth.
It’s not a huge sin, but neither does it make the world a better place. And it does have repercussions.
Above all else, selfless service is a spiritual practice. I’ve said this before, and here’s a good example. Working in Seva requires us to be completely honest, and to have enough grace to admit our mistakes. It’s a difficult discipline to embrace. But truthfulness is essential for building trust between project team members, as well as between helpers and those being helped. Trust is like liquid gold, immensely valuable but devilishly difficult to hold onto. So an apology is due whenever we make a mistake, even something as common and forgivable as mismanaging our time.
We regard time as flowing along at a constant rate, but that hasn’t been my experience. Curiously, when I stop worrying about it and relax, it often surprises me by expanding. The opposite is also true. When I try to cram too much into my day, like checking my email just one more time, it vanishes. And when I take on too much, as I often do, I invariably get angry, more at myself than at others.
A woman I know—I’ll call her Megan—had been overwhelmed by a project at her church. “I spent all last weekend on it,” she complained, “and I’m going to end up spending all this weekend on it.” She was being dramatic, and we both knew it. Not a problem, since we’re friends and give each other free rein to vent. But the exchange got me thinking. Why had Megan so exaggerated the number of hours she was spending on the project? Because she was caught in a time crunch—unfairly, she believed. Others should have been helping her, and they’d failed to do their part, at least their part as defined by Megan.
As a result, Megan had let herself be pushed out of Seva and into the zone of anger and resentment, an airless place where no one’s needs are served.
We renew our dance with time each day the moment we awaken. How can we keep from getting tripped up by potential missteps?
My only solution is to take a vow of truthfulness. I’ll level with myself about how much I can reasonably take on. I’ll fess up when I make a mistake and run late. At least, I’ll try to live by these rules.
Most of all, I’ll strive to remember that the whole point of Seva is to feed souls, my own and those of others. That’s only possible when I arrange my schedule so I can give freely of myself, without having to keep a constant eye on the clock.