I have a confession to make.
I am not always very punctual.
The more cynical among you may be thinking right now, “Isn’t that compulsory for a Coptic priest? Don’t they teach that during their 40 days of training?”
Of course, the reality is that Egypt lies at the junction of the Middle East and Africa, two regions of the world where puncuality as a priority rates somewhere between eating your greens and polishing your carburettor. If the West enjoys occasionally being ‘fashionably late’, everyone in the Middle East is a trend leader, while the dark continent loves to remind you, “No hurry in Africa”. No wonder that Egyptians, by and large, are not a very punctual people.
But here’s my problem: not only do I serve with a priest who is abnormally punctual, but I am married to one of the most punctual people I know! I am developing an inferiority complex! If they can do it, why can’t I?
Lateness is an attitude. If you are engrossed in the thing you are doing at the moment, it is easy to lose track of time. It is easy for the person you are talking to now to seem more pressing than the person you have not yet reached. Somewhere in the back of mind lurks the idea that nothing so terrible will happen if I’m a little bit late. And of course, the little bit becomes a little bit more, and little bit more, and… oops.
I can see spiritual benefits in this attitude, not to mention health benefits. Surely it is a good thing to give the person you are with your fullest attention? Doesn’t that let them know that they are important to you? It also means that you can do things properly, rather than leaving things half finished. Then of course, there is the valuable humility you gain from constantly apologising to people when you are constantly late. Healthwise, it is really good for you not to stress over the little details of life. Your blood pressure will thank you, even if the person waiting for you will not.
But my wife said something to me once that gave me pause: “Being punctual,” she said, “is keeping your word.” I had never really thought of it like that. If Egyptians are famous for lateness, Upper Egyptians (of which I am one) are proverbial for keeping their word – no matter what. So every time I am late, I am actually breaking my word to someone. “I’ll be there at 7,” I confidently tell them. When I eventually arrive at 7:30, not only have I kept them waiting for me for half an hour, but I have also broken my word. That’s not a nice thing to do. The message it sends is that the person waiting for you is not that important. Perhaps that your time is more valuale than theirs, so it is fine for them to wait for you.
Punctuality is often viewed as a cultural thing. But if so, I wonder why many of our Coptic youth who have been brought up here in Australia still seem to have the lousy punctuality of their parents. I begin to wonder whether there is not more to it than just culture. Maybe there is a personal choice to be made here. Can an unpunctual person really change? Can a Coptic priest really turn up on time? I have known some who do, on a regular basis!
Well, I’m going to give it a try!
I’ll let you know how it goes … some time …