I have written before about how I used to be chronically late until, one day, I disappointed someone whose opinion about me was important to me. Then I made up my mind to be on time and I worked at it and worked, until I am now someone who is usually on time.
That I was always late is actually something surprising about me, given my personality. I tend to be a rule-follower. If I’m supposed to do something, I do it. I feel intense guilt if I don’t do it. It is a quality that serves me in good stead, for example, during a pandemic where one is asked to mask when in public, keep physical distance from others. But it can also be something that causes great stress: my niece has this same commitment to rule-following, to doing what one should, and it causes her great mental pain. This is not to say that we follow rules blindly: she and I are both kind of rebels. If we disagree with a rule, we stand up against it and we refuse to follow it. But our default is to follow rules.
I say all this to put into perspective how important it is to me, when I am taking an online class, to stay current with it. I’m taking a class right now where a new lesson opens every week, on Monday at 9 a.m.
And therein lies the rub. I cannot start the lessons on Monday at 9 a.m. because I work on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. After work, I work out my mother, prepare dinner, spend some time with my husband and then go to bed. So the first time I can start the lessons is on Tuesday morning.
And I immediately feel like I am “behind!”
Some weeks – many weeks – my weekdays are so busy that I don’t have time to start the lesson until later in the week, and I do most of it on Saturday morning with follow up on Sunday. By then, the rest of the students have completed the lesson, finished their conversations in the discussion board, closed their laptops for the week and gone on with the rest of their life.
And I am, through no fault of my own, late.
This is an artificial construct of time.
I am only late in my own mind. I know that. I recognize that I have until the following Monday to complete the lesson. And, even then, there is no penalty if I continue working on it after the following Monday. If I went on vacation – oh, to go on vacation! – there would be no penalty if I finished the lesson after getting home.
And all these other students, that I am imagining having finished the lesson – well, they are imaginary also. I know that many of them have busy family lives, children, houses, spouses, who require their time. They have active hobbies, exercise routines. It is probable that many of them don’t finish the lesson on Monday, each week. Some number of them, I know for a fact, have several lessons to complete.
I know this in my head.
I recognize the artificial construct of time. I am not late until the following Monday.
I just feel late in my heart.
And it causes me pain.
Guilt sits heavy in my solar plexis, turning it a muddy red color, sending out waves of nausea.
If the lessons only launched on Fridays, I tell myself, I wouldn’t feel this way.
What is it about Mondays that feels like the start of the week? What if I had a calendar where the weeks ran Saturday through Friday? Would I feel better then? Or maybe that’s the wrong cadence.
Nevertheless, the suffering is real.
There is suffering in the world.
It is a natural part of existence. Whether you feel positive most of the time with moments of suffering or if you suffer much of the time, with moments where peace brings relief, suffering is natural.
My suffering over this temporal anomaly is nothing compared to the suffering many people are experiencing on any given day. Nevertheless, it is real to me.
The first noble truth is that there is suffering in the world. Suffering is real, even when caused by first world problems. The problems may not be real problems, but the suffering itself feels real.
The second noble truth is that suffering is caused by attachment: all the shoulds of the world. That I should finish the lesson before the weekend, something that feels obligatory because U.S. schools hold classes Monday – Friday. That I should be on time for things because the rules tell me that I should and because I made up my mind that I should always be on time and because my mother is never on time and I made up my mind that I should be different from my mother. This attachment is something in my head.
The third noble truth is that I can alleviate suffering by letting go of this attachment. Letting go of the attachment would relieve my suffering. It would also relieve the suffering that I cause others, by judging them for being late. I try not to judge others about being late, I understand they are busy – even if only in their own minds – and I am usually flexible. By holding up promptitude as an ideal state of being for myself, I am measuring them to this state of being and finding them wanting. I am usually flexible but sometimes people push my buttons by being late just one time too many and then my attachment comes out. And my evident pain when I am late sends a message to them: if you are late, you are bad. So letting go of this attachment – putting it down as the elder monk puts down the beautiful woman he carries across the river – instead of carrying it with me – as the younger monk carries the guilt (of having touched a woman while ferrying her across a river) for the rest of the day – relieves suffering in the world, my own suffering as well as the suffering of those I judge for being late.
It all starts with compassion for yourself: you can only have compassion for others when you have compassion for yourself.
May I accept that my pain is real.
May I be kind to myself.
May I accept myself as I am, right now.