An altar for the unknown God

"Coffee and a cat" (Eleanor adores Jack...and the feeling is mutual)

“Coffee and a Cat” (Eleanor adores Jack…and the feeling is mutual)

Growing up, time was always a tyrant in our house. My father was notoriously late (or didn’t come home at all) and my mother was extremely anxious about this. Punctuality was a quality assigned a label: if you were on-time or early, you were “good”. If you were late, or didn’t come at all, you were “bad”.

People who were consistently late were called irresponsible, inconsiderate, and looked down upon. I too adopted this belief, and felt justified in telling myself a story about the person I was interacting with, depending on what category they fit into. We punctual ones felt we had the right to shake our heads and criticize the late ones….we felt superior.

The trouble with this stance (good vs. bad, better than vs. worse) is that we are the ones who suffer when we label others, and then tell ourselves how inconsiderate they are and how much they hurt us. We inadvertently become the victims; hoping, praying, threatening, or reasoning with them to change so we can feel better. The thought, “How dare you do this to me?” is only empowering when the next thought is, “Why am I “doing this” to myself?”

We will never get the world to change so that we can feel perfectly settled. Even if we can somehow get one of those “late ones” to become more timely, if time is my tyrant, or if I’m so jumpy without knowing what the next moment will bring, (finding free time to be unbearable), then sure as anything, another late one will show up in my life. Life offers us a constant mirror and opportunity to look at ourselves, to change and release limiting beliefs, and to grow.

If I don’t look at someone’s lack of punctuality as a reflection on me (if I don’t take it personally and become distressed by it) then I am free. I can accept this aspect of them and adjust my own thinking and action based on what brings me inner peace, without criticizing them and making them wrong.

When I started to challenge this belief within myself (that late people were somehow defective) I almost felt like I was giving up something important (the ego always says things to us like, “You shouldn’t stand for this! You are right! They are wrong! Tell them now or they will walk all over you!”) but as I stayed with it, I actually began to not mind people being late. I found that just closing my eyes and mediating, or sitting and appreciating what was before me (as I waited), was like a mini-vacation. This was a total surprise to me. Could someone being late really be a gift?!

I found, for me, that it was. I was “forced” to just be in a little suspended time bubble; having time that I wouldn’t have carved out for myself, and I loved it.

As I read this post to Jack just now, he said: “A great question to ask ourselves might be, ‘What gift or surprise showed up the last time someone was late? I wonder how many times we totally overlooked the gift?” I loved these questions and so it might be fun this weekend to look for the gift when life isn’t showing up exactly like we had planned.

Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole ploughshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed that the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guest, an altar for the unknown God.” Henri-Frederic Amiel

17 thoughts on “An altar for the unknown God

  1. Thank you for another beautiful post. What a great reminder to look inside myself for the cause of my distress rather than “out there”!

  2. It’s always an “inside job” when some person, place or thing is upsetting to me. Thank you for a beautiful reminder. Working on the “laws” of no judgements….for myself and others…..very liberating when I can! I liked Jacks question…’s about trust for me, trusting life often has other plans for me, but they are good!

  3. It was so freeing to learn that the only one I can change is me. Also, I learned that we have far less control in this life than we would like to believe.
    Thank you for a great morning reflection, which hit home because I also was raised with the lesson that it was rude to be late. It caused me a lot of years of anxiety.

  4. Mary, there is much to be taken from your posting this morning and as Alison above has said, it is a reminder to look inside ourselves for the cause of our distress, not always for the reason for it, which may be external and beyond our power to change. What struck a person chord with me was your comment about your father being late or not showing up at all. I wonder if your mother’s bitterness in later years may have been more understandable because of what she lived through with your dad, not that bitterness in any of our lives is beneficial over the long run. I lived through this behaviour for years in my first marriage to my late husband who suffered from bi-polar disorder, although at the time he was undiagnosed. His time of arrival home was generally 2 a.m. in the morning during his business week and I was very naive at the time. I don’t have good memories of someone being late although I realize this is the vehicle by which you’ve been able to phrase your message this morning. Oddly enough, for some reason, my late husband’s secretary’s name came to my mind in the early hours of this morning. I wonder where these odd thoughts come from out of the blue. Together they were responsible for forging my name on a mortgage on the house which I owned and lived in at the time of his death and which left me in a lawsuit with a bank for four years even though the signature was proven to be a forgery. So, I am grumpy this morning…time to erase it with pleasant thoughts of today. I will look deeper into your message and leave off the late part…a coincidence of my thought and your thought and timing. Again, I often wonder about the energy flowing amongst us all here on the board.
    SandyP in Canada

  5. Dear Mary, what a beautiful and gentle message this morning! Thank you. I think so much of the stress we may feel about life comes when we don’t accept things as they are. I will be more aware today of my own tendencies to wish something were different when perhaps things are exactly as they should be and the hidden gift of delight is waiting for me to discover it amongst my perceived expectations.

  6. Thank you Mary …. I am that person who feels superior to the “late ones” and I get agitated and angry. I want the world to change to what I want because THAT will make me happy :). I will take the time to look within for my distress and stop blaming others.

  7. Oh Mary, thank you, your words this morning resonate with me. I have a tendency to be the late one, just a few minutes, but still late. I have worked on this over the years, telling myself ” what is wrong with you!” I love the thought that there is a potential gift in my tardiness, and when I am the one waiting, I can open myself to the possibility of serendipity. Blessings…

  8. “Life offers us a constant mirror and opportunity to look at ourselves, to change and release limiting beliefs, and to grow.”
    Love your message today, Mary – the more aware of this I become, (ironically) I experience more “control” in my life.

  9. I enjoyed reading these words this morning. I’m one of those ‘if you aren’t five minutes early, then you are late’ people. I’ve felt similar to you about the people who are habitually late and have been working to let go of the stress and tension it causes me when they are.

    Your words are a good, gentle reminder to continue trying to be at ease with it.

  10. Mary – Thank you for the perfect message today. So much of what you wrote really struck a chord with me. I’ll be looking for “the gift” this weekend!

  11. The other morning we left a little “later” than usual with our dogs for their morning walk. My husband has always been very schedule oriented, but I have to chuckle when he says we’re leaving ‘late’, as if the dogs know if it’s 6 a.m. or 6:05. On the morning we left “late”, we happened upon a dear little old lady on one of the streets we always take, standing in her driveway, waving her arm, “Can someone help me?” I quickly gave my husband my dog’s leash and he held them both while I ran up to her to see what was wrong. Her husband had fallen out of bed and she didn’t know what to do and asked if two strong men could help him. I went inside with her, and thankfully he was not in pain, and was quite coherent, but a large man! I knew right away to call 911 for help and within five to ten minutes four strapping (and handsome!) firemen were there to assist him, lifting him up into a chair, taking his vitals, etc. and he did seem to be just fine. This dear little lady was crying and so scared. I gently told her never ever to hesitate calling 911, that this is what they are there for. She held on to me and it was a privilege to be able to comfort her. They are both in their mid-nineties! So glad we left ‘late’ that day. I do so love the idea of cherishing the unexpected minutes when waiting for someone who is late, thinking of them as bonus free time to let our mind wander where it may, and as the quote so beautifully put it, enjoy resting in the fallow corner, the reserved nook. I wish this quotation could be printed on a pretty plaque to keep on my desk – Thank you Mary!

    • Susan, thank you for posting this site. I’ve looked at it and the very first quote is usable for me in speaking to quilt guilds. How would I ever have known about this Swiss philosopher otherwise than had Mary not sourced out this quote. My world is expanding.
      SandyP in Canada

  12. I have a friend with whom I have breakfast occasionally. In all the years we’ve been doing this, she is always consistently late. I, having had a strict Catholic-school education, know not to be late or the nun will appear with the ruler! And so I sit in my car, waiting and irritated, wondering what makes some people ALWAYS show up late and, more annoyingly, ALWAYS aplogize for being late!

    Thanks to your post, Mary, my next breakfast with her will have a much more pleasant beginning. I’ll be looking for the gift….

  13. OUCH! Back to the drawing boards. I always felt perpetual tardiness was a sign of disrespect. I’m going looking for lost gifts now…….hope I find a trove.

  14. I am reading this post late and glad for it as my weekend will be full of events out of my control. Without going into too much detail, I am helping a niece through a very difficult time. Now I am so looking forward to life’s events that will be there for me while I wait. I love this concept. I think I knew it off and on, but it is extremely hard to hold onto as I get so caught up in life and just essentially demand it to continue on at a rapid pace and forget to stop, breath, and enjoy it’s unexpected moments.

    Thank you, Mary. You’re blog is such a huge part of my day even though I rarely respond. Please know you are loved.

  15. It’s been a busy week and I’m just getting to read some previous posts…what immediately struck me while reading this, Mary, was how we are such a product of our environment. Your early years dealing with punctuality issues, both with your Dad and with the labeling of others (irresponsible, inconsiderate, etc) really shaped you and formed your basis for viewing others. We don’t often understand why another gets so upset about something because we don’t know their history – wow – this really has me thinking this morning! For the past few years I have been so much more aware of what my triggers are, things from my past that can take me from 0 to 60 in just one second. I think recognizing them is the first step to dealing with them.
    One thing I do know, when we do get together for lunch, I will not be late…LOL!
    love and hugs, Marian

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