A few years ago, in trying to explain how culture and environment influence a person’s attitude toward punctuality, I began a chapter in one of my novels like this:
“The people of the Amazon in Peru have a unique relationship with time. In the equatorial expanse of the jungle, there is little change in weather, seasons, sunrise, and sunset. Time seems to glide by slowly, accommodating itself to the languid ways of the region. Or, perhaps, the languid ways of the region reflect the almost imperceptible way that change occurs. The Amazon cares little about that. The river rises and falls twenty or more meters throughout the year, but the water level along its banks and on the hardwood stilts supporting homes by the river seems to move hardly at all from day to day. Dugout canoes glide almost effortlessly along, so low in the brown water that only surface tension keeps water from rushing in. The lush foliage challenges the observer to count its shades of green and hides the way into the jungle, only hinting at the dark, impenetrable wall of intertwined vegetation just a few meters from the river’s edge. Enormous trees, buttressed by wall-like roots, gradually rise above the jungle to offer support to the thousand species of birds in the region. The strangler fig takes its time as it slowly reaches upward to surround a tall tree. It dies in its grasp and crumbles away, leaving the delicate latticework of the fig to host the birds that don’t notice that the tree is gone.
“The people of the river live in slow time. If fish do not bite today, they probably will tomorrow. If the river transport boat is a few hours or days late, that becomes an opportunity to chat with the neighbors, maybe make new friends. If it rains too hard to gather building materials from the jungle, it is fine to wait a day. Perhaps a cousin, uncle or sister will be here to help them. It is, of course, important to have a job, to make a living, to buy rubber boots, cell phones, headlamps and machetes. However, the jungle offers much for the taking – food, shelter, charcoal to sell, exotic barks to cure many illnesses. It is, of course, important to have a job. But even without a job, one can survive. There is no need to rush.”
Here is a seemingly unrelated story on which I’ll comment later.
A scorpion came up to a bullfrog, sunning himself on a log by the river. The scorpion said, “I need to get to the other side. I’d be very grateful if you’d give me a ride across on your back.” The bullfrog replied, “No way! What if you decide to sting me as I swim across?”
“Why would I do that? Then I’d drown. Don’t worry. I won’t do that.”
Relieved, the bullfrog let the scorpion climb on his back and swam into the river. Halfway across, the scorpion stung the bullfrog powerfully in the neck.
With his last breath, the bullfrog asked, “Why did you do that? Now we’ll both die.”
“I know,” said the scorpion. “It’s just my nature.”
Another anecdote defines the apex of punctuality. A German business associate picked me up in his Mercedes at my hotel in Munich for a two-hour drive to a meeting in another town. Construction delayed him, so when we hit the autobahn he cruised at 150 kilometers or more per hour. We arrived at our destination five minutes early, and I complimented him for being on time.
“To be early is not to be on time,” he said.
I inherited the punctuality gene, probably from German ancestors. Even though I understood the nature/nurture influence on people’s approach to punctuality, I tried to resist feelings of disappointment, anger, or rejection when others were tardy. I developed strategies for herding three teenage daughters to appointments, visits to relatives, and flights on time. Mainly, it involved lying about departure times. I also tried economic determinism and docked allowances for the pain and suffering my wife and I experienced because of their lateness.
Over time, I recognized that, though they hadn’t inherited the punctuality gene, my daughters had other admirable qualities that I lacked. I’m tying to emulate one of them—patience.
Yet, there are many of us who are slaves to our punctuality gene.
I guess that’s our nature.