The beginning of this transformation was innocuous enough. I was leading the morning session of a Nonviolent Communication Leadership Program retreat. A significant and unexpected conversation happened in the group, and I wanted to bring our attention back to the planned topic. Just then, someone had one more thing to say and asked to be heard, to be given empathy for what she was expressing. In response, I said something familiar such as: “I would love to be present with you now, and I feel too anxious about time.”
Before I managed to choose what to ask of her to see how to resolve the dilemma, someone else jumped in, rather agitated, saying something like: “I am tired of everything always being about time. Time this and time that. Enough. Time… time… time… I can’t stand it any more.” The ferocity of his reaction took me entirely by surprise, and then didn’t. If Nonviolent Communication is about the human needs, then attributing any choice to “time” was exiting the awareness of needs as motivating every action. My awkwardness and confusion turned into serious curiosity. I told him I was eager to explore it deeply and would get back to him. We somehow worked out the agitation of the moment, the decisions about what we would give our attention to were made, and the morning ended.
Time and Needs
Later that afternoon, I sat with some of my colleagues and began my exploration. All I had to guide me was a question I derived from the morning’s insight: if time is not part of the needs consciousness I was cultivating in me and sharing with others, then what does it mean to make all choices based on needs and not on time? I understood rather quickly that the first thing it meant was that I would want to find a way to articulate my choice that was based on needs, not on a concept such as time.
We set up a role play in which one of my colleagues was the agitated person and one was the person who originally asked for my empathic presence. My task was to find a way to express in words my reluctance without reference to time. My colleague’s task was to let me know whether the words I spoke were agitating and to let me know exactly how so. Then I would take in the feedback, change a word, maybe add another or eliminate a part of what I said, and then a new round would begin. All through, my aim was to be completely authentic, true to myself, and caring for the two people in the role play with me. We were at it for about twenty minutes. If this sounds tedious, it partly was. It wasn’t only tedious, though. Each iteration taught us all something about how significant our choice of words is, how fundamentally sensitive we are to the subtlest of meaning differences.
At this point in the story, most people are endlessly curious what the final statement was that my colleague was satisfied with, and are disappointed to learn that I don’t remember any of the details. What I do remember is the profound, singular sense of satisfaction when we were done. The alignment was so deep, that I could almost feel my nervous system being re-wired in the process. I grasped in my whole being, in a way that no intellectual clarity could ever provide, how much assigning my choices to time gives away my power and hides my true choice. Instead, I could glimpse the opening of a new possibility, of taking ownership of my choice.
I never imagined that tweaking this or that word was the entryway to full liberation from the shackles of time that it turned into. Certain simple, common phrases fell out of use with me. Although I may still slip into momentary unconsciousness, it’s extremely rare for me to say “I don’t have time” or “I am doing this because of time” or even “I couldn’t get back to you.” Not pretending that time rules my life has invited me into more responsibility, more honesty, and more freedom. Saying “I don’t have time” protects me from the realization that something else is more important to me, or from noticing and mourning my existential limitations. The simple phrase “I don’t have time” shifts the responsibility to something outside of me.
Here’s a particularly painful example. I am almost constantly aware of the unimaginable number of children under five who die every day from food-related causes (malnutrition and disease). Since I no longer say that I don’t have time to do something about it, I face, instead, the crushing reality that despite my anguish about this situation, I am making the choice to put my attention elsewhere. I choose to live with this anguish because my inner passion is about consciousness transformation and structural transformation, not about working directly to support hungry children. I could, and do sometimes, tell myself that the work I do has the potential to eliminate hunger altogether, and I also know that it won’t help those who are dying in the meantime.
Time and Stress
Some time later I took my second step toward time liberation. I made a date with a friend from Kenya, and she showed up a full two hours after the time we had agreed upon. I knew I was facing cultural differences. Because we were friends, and share an interest in meaningful and significant connection, it wasn’t enough for me to leave it at the level of “acceptance” of the difference. I decided to get to the bottom of it, beyond any polite limitations of what could be talked about between two immigrants, one a Westerner and one African. I am so glad for that choice.
What I learned from my friend is that she has complete ability to be anywhere at a designated time, and that she continually makes the choice when and how to exercise that ability, because it’s a stressful process to stop the flow of whatever is going on in order to attend to something else. Why would she want to put herself into a state of stress in preparation for what would be a fun and nourishing activity such as visiting a friend? She reserves the arduous process of leaving home in time for an appointment to those occasions that have the least flexibility and adaptability, such as airline departures or doctor appointments. With her friends, she prefers to arrive relaxed and late rather than stressed for something that’s supposed to be fun. Since everyone else in her culture shares that preference, those waiting for her, unlike me, don’t get stressed in the process. Life continues, and then at some point she shows up and life happens together for a while until she leaves.
Not only did her explanation support me in understanding and connecting with her. What she said also made immediate and perfect sense to me. I know the stress she is talking about. I know how unnatural it is to stop something I am doing that has flow and vitality to it just because the clock shows a particular time and I have an appointment somewhere. The cultural difference, as I see it, is that in the Western cultures we willingly take on this particular stress because we have agreed to obey the external rhythm of the clock over and above the internal rhythm of our life energy. We also hold each other accountable to this external rhythm and willingly judge each other when we don’t follow that path.
I have not been willing to go against the culture in which I live to that degree, not on this count. I prefer to hold on to my habits of punctuality, although I notice I have been less impeccable about showing up right on time having had this realization. What has changed is that I am aware of choice in the matter, and I know what I am choosing and why.
Time and Choice
Since the day in which I did my role-play about time, I never lost sight of the merciless and glorious reality that each moment I am making a choice where I put my attention, what I do, and what I don’t do. I know I am making those choices based on what’s most important to me that I am aware of. Keeping my awareness of this reality helps me maintain a degree of honesty with myself that is akin to swimming in a mountain lake: cold, challenging, and immensely invigorating. I am also more and more able to find ways to express with full honesty to others why I make the choices I am making, finding other ways of expressing to people that they matter to me aside from pretending that it was beyond my control. One delightful aspect of this practice has been, paradoxically, a growing awareness of all that I care about, especially the people, especially when I am not going to do what they ask me to do.
Telling a friend or a colleague that I couldn’t get back to them is simply not true. Between the moment this person contacted me and when I got back to them, I made a million choices that resulted in not getting back to them. I ate, I spoke with other people, I wrote, I had meetings, I slept, I wrote a blog piece, or whatever else I did. Each of these actions, in the moment of taking it, meant that I was making something else more important than getting back to the person who contacted me. We all know this, of course, both when we say and when we hear these words “I couldn’t get back to you.” These words simply mask this truth, for all concerned, providing a social glue that allows us all to get through the day.