Is Tardiness a Vice?


I am trying to finish this post, well after my deadline, and just emailed Deacon Mike an apology about not having it finished yet. I am submitting a post about being late… late. The irony of this is not lost on me.

There is an increased tendency in my life to run late, and it’s not something of which I am proud. Is it really a big deal to run late? Whether it’s sliding into a meeting a minute after it starts, consistently texting a friend that you’ll be five minutes late for your coffee date, or getting to Mass in the middle of the first reading, I think it’s something we need to re-examine in our lives.

Studies are showing that tardiness is on the rise, and ink has been spilled about various reasons, including blaming the millennial generation. As a millennial, I know I resemble some of the criticism. At the same time, I don’t think we can blame a certain age group or a certain personality type. While those things may be a contribution, habitual tardiness or a general apathy about punctuality can creep into anyone’s life. So I have to ask: Does it matter? Practically, yes. But even more importantly… spiritually, yes.

To be clear, I am not speaking about an occasional incident. Things happen, plans get changed, and wrenches get tossed into our daily activities. Parents and/or spouses have less control over things because they are dealing with other people with free will. I know all of that. But let’s be sober and honest with ourselves. Could we be doing a better job being punctual?  Yes, it’s hard for a young family to get to Mass on time. Yes, it’s hard for a busy professional to make it to meeting after meeting on time. But instead of making excuses, let’s try to root out some of the vices that might lie underneath tardiness.

Technology has contributed to an apathy about punctuality. It’s too easy to send a quick email or text that we are running late. Back in the dark ages before cell phones, we set up plans on our landline telephones, and those plans remained in stone because they were difficult to change.  If I had a coffee date with a friend and something came up at the last minute, I knew that I would be leaving that friend waiting, unaware, confused, and probably perturbed. How long ago those days seem! Now I can send a quick text or make a quick call on my cell phone and “apologize” that I’m “just running ten minutes behind…” and expect that friend to wait for me.

Perhaps our tardiness lies behind the mask of productivity or multi-tasking. I have a meeting in ten minutes, but if I can just finish these four emails and make this one phone call… And then ten minutes turns to twenty, and my colleagues are all waiting for me. We try to squeeze as much as we can out of our precious time, but are we doing it at the risk of wasting the time of others?

Or maybe we can honestly chalk our lateness up to simple inattentiveness and carelessness. You may have a friend (or maybe this describes you) whom you know is always going to be ten minutes later than they say they’re going to be. He or she simply doesn’t pay attention to the clock or the amount of time they need to accomplish a task. After a while, you budget that into any plan. If you want to get together with them, you tell them a time that is actually much earlier than you really want to start, as your only hope of starting on time.

Again, I ask: does this matter? If someone else’s tardiness annoys you, should we just chalk up your annoyance to an uptight fixation on schedules? If your own tardiness annoys you, should you just have more patience with yourself or tell yourself it’s not really your fault?

If we’re speaking about habitual tardiness, there is a call to make a spiritual examination of what is causing it and how we can become better people. Holiness is not just about our prayer lives. Our quest to become saints touches our daily lives, our interactions with others, and our self-discipline in our everyday activities. Could our tardiness have spiritual causes and answers?

  1. Pride & Humility. While it may sound extreme, what we might be saying with our habitual tardiness is that we value our time and our work more than we value the time and work of others. To assume someone can reschedule or start a meeting late, or to make someone wait for us might seem innocent enough. What are our actions saying, however? Depending on the situation, tardiness is often disrespectful. We might be forcing someone to put their needs aside for ours. Am I putting others before me in a spirit of humility, or am I placing my time and duties before theirs?
  1. Laziness & Temperance. Perhaps when we examine our habitual tardiness, we find at the root simple laziness. Pushing the snooze button too many times means I’m likely going to slip into Mass a little late. Rather than telling myself “God doesn’t care when I show up to Mass – at least I’m going,” perhaps I need to begin to discipline myself. The virtue of temperance doesn’t just relate to alcohol, food, or sex. I have to be disciplined in all my choices in life, and sometimes that means saying no to snooze button, that final check of Facebook before I walk out the door, or any other diversion that is going to make me late. Likewise, the virtue of fidelity is not just about being faithful to God or to my vocation. Fidelity to my own word when I promise to meet someone or I tell myself I’m going to get out of bed at a certain time are small practices of fidelity that help me be faithful in the bigger things.
  1. Distraction & Attentiveness. Another important virtue on our path to sanctity is that of attentiveness. Maybe when I examine my habitual tardiness, I find that I am simply allowing myself to become distracted. We have so many distractions in our lives. It is easy to become consumed by something, to lose track of time, and to forget my neighbor. The virtue of attentiveness requires cultivation, but it something that will help us better minister to our neighbor, stay faithful to our word, and ultimately foster a deeper prayer life.

All three of these things boil down to sacrifice. As with anything in our quest for holiness, we must make our lives a gift of self. Do I want to get one more thing off my to-do list before running out the door? Yes. Do I want to push the snooze button? Yes. Do I want to allow myself to get lost in a project or a distraction and not worry about the time? Yes. But in the end, I have to examine how my choices affect others and affect my own spiritual life.

At the same time, that self-gift and call to sacrifice also extends to my patience and tolerance of others. If I have a notoriously late friend, am I willing to be flexible and offer up my annoyance? If someone is late for a meeting, do I give them the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps they are tardy because they had someone in their office who needed a listening ear. Rather than push that person away from the sake of a schedule, they took the time to be present.

Our Christian life has one goal: love. While we might like to think of grand displays of love and sacrifice, those grand displays are only possible if we are daily making small sacrifices and small acts of love. Our attentiveness to others, our sincere attempt to be faithful to commitments, and our fidelity and generosity to others’ time are the small things that make up a life of virtue.  If you struggle with tardiness like I do, let’s stop to examine our lives and practices in the light of love. How are my habits preventing me from living for others? How are they preventing growth in my prayer life? What virtues should I be cultivating in order to better serve God and my neighbor in practical, everyday ways?


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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