I make lots of appointments with people, and the odds of me actually showing up and keeping the appointment fall in the 90% range. The odds of me calling or emailing the person I’m supposed to meet with when I’m going to miss the meeting or be late, gets me up close to the 100% range (last November when a windstorm took out all island power and telephone lines and all cell service – that’s the last time I can recall failing to keep an appointment and not notifying the person). While a part of me thinks that keeping appointments or calling “is just common courtesy,” the neuroscientist in me (who has to deal with an island full of musicians, writers, poets and painters who operate on what’s known locally as “Whidbey Island Time”) knows that when I fail to keep an appointment and don’t email or call, something adverse is going on in my brain and life. Discounting windstorms, most often my calendar has made me its bitch.
What it has taken me a long time to realize is that my skull is a finite space and my brain’s networks have massive, but not unlimited capacity. As a result of health and stress and environmental challenges, that capacity constantly changes. As I age, my brain’s capabilty seems to be diminishing. It’s much harder to keep things in mind than it used to be. It takes more time, more energy, more intention. I have to be increasingly mindful – of my own needs and abilities, and of the needs and abilities of others.
When people don’t show up for an appointment and don’t call or email, I usually wait 10 minutes and then move on to something else. I have plenty that beckons to me on my own calendar. I almost never call to remind them of our meeting. There are a number of reasons why I don’t call. One is that I don’t feel like it’s my job to manage their calendar. Like I said, I have plenty to manage with my own calendar with my own brain’s finite, diminishing capacity.
Learning Life Limits
Another reason I don’t call is that it’s my sincere belief that it is the growth and learning work for many of us (yes, even aging musicians, writers, poets and painters) to increase the part of our brain responsible for executive functions. One such executive function is making plans and keeping appointments. I don’t think we learn to do that, to actually grow the cell connections necessary, by relying on or expecting other people to be responsible for our calendars (unless we’ve hired them or agreed they will perform that express purpose). Interestingly, while I was in the middle of edits on this column, I came across a new book by Ken Wilber, whose ideas I was begrudgingly forced to grapple with decades ago in grad school. Ken’s new book is about waking up and growing up. Practicing the skillful management of my own calendar seems to qualify on both counts.
Yet another reason I don’t notify appointment-missers involves The Big Brain Question. Our brains are constantly scanning the social landscape looking for people, places and circumstances that will help us grow in the direction of being able to authentically answer this question “Yes” for ourselves and others. While most of us won’t necessarily consciously recognize that when people make appointments and don’t keep them, they are essentially answering The Big Brain Question “No,” our unconscious brains do recognize that answer. In my experience if you answer The Big Brain Question “No” enough times for people, the Universe begins to answer it “No” for you.
3 Fingers-Pointing Backwards
Sometimes people who fail to keep appointments will accuse me of not caring because I don’t call to remind them we’re supposed to be meeting. Usually, I resist the urge to reply, “Wait a minute. We had an appointment and you didn’t keep it. You filled your life and calendar with things that you gave greater priority to than our time together. So, if anybody should have a finger pointed at them for not sufficiently caring, shouldn’t it be you?”
My deepest truth mostly is that neuroscience has taught me not to take these missed appointments personally, even if they are a momentary pain-in-the-ass disappointment. Better to use it as an opportunity to practice Arugamama Listening. One apparent truth is that the vulnerability of our dynamic neural networks sometimes make our brain malfunction. The good news is that most often such lapses are brief and temporary. Failing to keep promises and commitments is not an everyday way of life for most of us. And the more good news is that it truly has little to do with anyone’s genuine caring heart, an essential organ needed to be placed into regular service for waking up and growing up.