Susan and her husband Jack set off two and a half hours before the flight from their Dublin hotel. Plenty of time, said the receptionist. The signposting to the airport was poor however, and then they hit the evening traffic, and got stuck. They tried the bus lane and got trapped behind a double decker. They began to panic. By the time they got to the airport, their driving was bordering on the lunatic and they had smoked eight cigarettes between them. They had fifteen minutes before take-off. “It’s hopeless,” said Jack, but Susan said she would lose money and credibility at work if she didn’t turn up, since it was the last flight. Jack screeched to a halt, threw her the keys and she sprinted to the rental hut, slammed them down on the desk and tore towards the terminal shouting, “Bring the cases!”. By the time she reached the check-out desk she looked like a bag lady. “I’ve got a runner for the London flight,” said the check-out girl on the phone as Jack trundled up red-faced with the cases. “It’s OK, it’s delayed,” she added with a smile. “We joined the passengers waiting in the departure lounge, as if we were not late, just cool,” recalls Susan. “The stress had all been for nothing. But I felt we had lost several years off our lives.”
And maybe they had. The stress of being late is one of the worst stresses in the world. The amount of cortisol released when we feel we have no control over our circumstances is extremely damaging to DNA.
We are not talking about being late through our own fault. This is another area of study, where we have some kind of payoff for not leaving in time. When we’re racing along the street jostling other pedestrians or honking in a traffic jam thinking I’ve done it again, why why why do I do this to myself? the time has come to assess whether the damage we are doing to our bodies is worth the procrastination that led to it. It may be due to the very common reluctance to go out and face the world, a desire to stay indoors and snuggle up with the ipad, perhaps an addiction to the adrenaline of rushing, or a self-seeking attitude of maximising our own productivity or convenience at the expense of other people’s. Some people feel that arriving late gives them status, or protects them from that desperate feeling of sitting alone in a bar or restaurant along the lines of the old joke, Laugh and the world laughs with you, be prompt and you dine alone.
No – here we are talking about times when factors outside of our control wreck our perfect timing. This happens to everyone, and when it does if we want to stay ageless, we must say, OK – we get there when we get there. What is the worst thing that can happen? Lose money, lose credibility perhaps, but then, am I so indispensable? There is nothing we can do about traffic. Most people understand the vagaries of public transport, and even major speakers at big conferences get held up in traffic, and the reaction of the public is more often than not sympathy.
“Once,” said Susan, “my flight was cancelled and I was five hours late for a meeting abroad. The boss gave me hell. But then on the way home, he was bumped off the flight due to overbooking. There is a God.”
Sometimes a missed connection can mean an unexpected night in a strange city visiting things we normally would never have seen. It is good to think the universe knows what it is doing. None of us is, ultimately, indispensable. When the stress response is triggered in a situation which is beyond our control, let’s stop and consider the toll it takes on our bodies. One day the people who are irritated because we were late due to no fault of our own will no longer be in our lives. And perhaps we’ll be the last ones standing.