Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hey, slow down, pal!

I was driving on one of the main streets in my hometown of Concord recently, behind one of those phantom-driver cars. You know the ones I’m talking about? There is no apparent driver, at least that you can see from behind, just a normal-height headrest with nothing sticking up over.

This phantom was driving super slowly and hesitating at every intersection even though we had the right-of-way at each one. The reason I bring this up is more in reference to the guy who was behind the phantom for a while and in front of me. This pickup driver was in some kind of hurry. It was important to him that he weave back and forth, right on the butt end of the slow car. Eventually the slow car pulled over for a bit, and the pickup gunned his engine and sped by. Then I filled in and proceeded behind the stately paced phantom driver.

We are all in such a big hurry. I have to admit, I also had to do a little deep breathing to keep peaceful pace behind the 15 mph-below-the-speed-limit person. My guess is that the driver was searching for an address, or just really cautious behind the wheel these days. This gave me a valuable opportunity to slow down and notice what impatience feels like. Strange, too, because I did not have any deadline that I was about to blow, so there was no concern about inconveniencing another person, or missing the plane to my daughter’s wedding, or anything like that. Just driving more slowly than I’m used to on that road, feeling my chest and throat stiffen up and my gut buzz most unpleasantly. Then, right following this curious attention toward impatience came blessed release from most of the tight buzz. Breathe...right, there’s no rush... settle back. How wonderful!

I actually used to be that pickup truck guy, not too many years ago. I can remember this one incident, standing in line at the sandwich counter in the building where I worked. The deli worker had the audacity to pick up the phone and take an order while she was waiting on me at the counter. She scribbled the other order down, asked a few questions for clarity’s sake, and then hung up and came back to me. Where is the justice, I fumed, the sense of first-come-first-served? Is my time not important? Was I not standing at the counter, in the flesh, rather than calling from a remote office? I remember going into full-blown retail fury mode, giving this person a piece of my mind about proper queuing protocol for customer service optimization, or some such annoying blather. I’m sure this was extremely instructive for this person, what with the orders piling up and people still waiting in line behind me. Not!

Time is a funny phenomenon. When we firmly believe that there’s a finite amount of it, we horde it and get real worked up if someone tries to steal some of ours. Like that deli lady “did” to me. What if there’s actually all the time in the world for everything to happen perfectly? I think about all the times I’ve been so worked up in a hurry, and then actually been truly late for whatever I was racing to. I can’t think of a single time where anybody died, any relationship was rattled for more than 10 minutes, or there was any meaningful deterioration to any aspect of my life. Further, for those times when there has been a true emergency, the resources were fully there to move like lightning, to take care of what needed attending, and to accept what the outcome eventually was, for good or ill. And even more magically, all of that happened without any reference to time, and whether there was enough of it. Granted, I’m not an emergency response professional, but I have to guess that these people must somehow come to grips with the fact that they’re giving their all, using the time, skills and resources available, and that whatever happens comes from their best efforts and is therefore the best outcome possible.

In the deli situation, everything was also happening perfectly. I was perfectly invited to contact some patience with and compassion for a service worker in a tough situation. (As it happened, I missed that invitation. No problem, I’ve had many, many similar invitations over the years, the perfect amount in fact. I’m hearing them nowadays pretty consistently, thank you very much for asking.) And yeah, the deli worker was invited to listen beyond my irate tone and actually consider whether there might be an adjustment to the first-in-first-out process that could keep everyone feeling respected. And I did get my sandwich, and so, I presume, did the person on the phone. And there was exactly enough time for all of this to happen perfectly.

So stop racing around in a dither like you’re running out of time. Take a breath. Give the driver in front of you two car lengths. You might actually find the chance to notice that there’s a lot to enjoy when you stop racing past it all. Check this out for yourself, and let me know what you discover.