Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Time Anxiety

Why anxiety about being late is really anxiety about something else

Photo: Rob and Stephanie Levy
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Of all the things there are to be anxious about—of all the things I've ever been anxious about—time, in one way or another, has probably been the most pervasive. To start with, I hate being late. Whether to a party (who comes on time to a party?), a movie, or even something I've planned to do by myself, to arrive at the appointed time without arriving at the appointed place isn't just distasteful to me—it's anxiety-producing. Even when being late brings about no adverse consequences whatsoever.

Why is this? Until recently, I'd never bothered to ask. But then my wife pointed out to me one day how agitated I'd become when it became clear we'd be late taking our son to a play date with one of his friends, and I realized not only how anxious being late made me, but also how out of proportion that anxiety had become.

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It made me think of how I used to feel during Winter and Spring breaks during college. I'd always looked forward to them eagerly but then found myself feeling a mild degree of dread as I lived through them. The source of this feeling? I'd always wanted to be a writer but had no time to write while in school, so I'd always plan to write while on vacation. But I never did, either because other activities got in the way or because I wasn't ever able to figure out what exactly I wanted to write. Which, sadly, often made my vacations feel to me like wasted time.

More recently, I've noticed myself sometimes feeling mildly anxious as activities wind down because of some mild apprehension that I won't be able to get the next activity started on time. Which, of course, interferes with my ability to enjoy the end of my activities.

A few moments of reflection after my wife pointed out how extreme my time anxiety had become quickly made clear to me that it stemmed not just from my fear of death (that is, of running out of time), but also from my fear of wasting my life. My anxiety about time, it turns out, is really anxiety about meaning. That is, I worry constantly that I'm spending my time on things that are meaningless. Or, perhaps I should say, not meaningful enough.

It would be fair to say I'm obsessed with meaning. It's not that I believe some outside force exists that has assigned a purpose to my life that I've yet to discover. It's that I recognize my well-being is largely determined by the importance of the value I feel I'm creating with my life. I want—I need—what I do with my life to matter. To whom? To anyone. In fact, to as many anyones as possible.

This is what my time anxiety is really about. At some level, being late always triggers this question: am I creating the greatest amount of value with my life that I can? Will I feel, when it comes my time to die, that I spent too much of my time frivolously? Certainly I can't be concerned with creating value for others all the time. But if at the end of my life I don't feel that I spent the better part of it making some kind of contribution, I worry my life will feel like a wasted opportunity. So much suffering exists in the world. To me nothing seems a more important goal—more weighty a goal—than trying to reduce it.

That particular goal may not be what seems most important to you. And that's fine. But if you also suffer from time anxiety, I'd encourage you to stop and ask yourself if you aren't really more anxious about what your life means. About what you're doing with it. And if it turns out you're worried that what you're doing isn't meaningful enough, then figure out what is meaningful enough and start doing that. Or if the contribution you've decided to spend your life making already does feel like the most meaningful contribution you could make and like me you're anxious because you're not always spending your time making it, remind yourself, as I did, that you don't need to focus every minute of your life on value creation for value creation to have been what your life was all about.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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