The Most Important Lesson about Time I Initially Ignored

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One of the unique experiences of military veterans is the exposure to different cultures and nationalities around the world. If a service member takes the time to understand the culture of the people they are interacting with, they can enjoy a wide range of deep and meaningful events in their lives. The challenging thing is for veterans to be willing to take the time to understand the culture and diversity of those around them. I had an experience in my first of two deployments to Afghanistan that I did not fully appreciate at the time.

Our mission was to conduct security escort for Afghani drivers. We conducted three-day patrols, escorting supplies over a distance of nearly 120 miles. That may not seem far…the distance from Atlanta to Columbus, Georgia is only 108 miles, for example, and New York to Philadelphia is just under 100 miles. Easy to do, less than an afternoon, right? Well, try doing that while escorting fifteen to twenty vehicles that don’t go faster than twenty miles an hour, over roads that are increasingly smaller, in various levels of repair (or disrepair) with a mountain on one side and a river on the other. Oh, and people want to shoot at you. A seemingly simple task takes on an entire different magnitude.

On one particular day, we were to be joined by a company of Afghan National Army Soldiers. The way that we, the U.S. Army, did things was that we often arrive in our assembly area several hours before our required time of departure. Making sure our vehicles were ready, receiving intel briefings, coordinating with the units that covered the areas we would be moving through, and checking and rechecking our equipment. We had things scheduled at two hours prior, one hour prior, and time hacks every fifteen minutes after that. We had requested that our ANA counterparts arrive at the two-hours-prior mark. That didn’t happen.

An hour passed. Then another twenty minutes. Finally, thirty minutes before we were supposed to leave, they pull into our assembly area.

I know what a lot of you veterans are thinking; unreliable. Unacceptable. Typical and untrustworthy. I know, because I was thinking the same thing; I had the responsibility to get this show on the road, and here these guys were pulling in ninety minutes late.

The old ANA commander and I had a short conversation, and he taught me a lesson that is valuable now, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time. In my most diplomatic voice, I explained to him that he was late.

“Late for what, my friend?” He said, through our interpreter “We were told we would not be leaving for another half an hour.”

“Yes, but you and your men were supposed to be here an hour and a half ago.”

“But we will be driving to Asmar today, yes?” Asmar was the location of one of our Combat Outposts, about ninety miles away.

“Yes.”

“And if we leave now, we will reach our destination today, yes?” I had to begrudgingly agree with him that, while true, we would not make it there in the time we had planned.

“But we will arrive today, yes?” In my recollection, he was patiently explaining this to me as if I were a child, which, to his experienced eyes, I quite possibly was. “In Afghanistan, we do what we need to. If we need to drive to Asmar today, then we will do it. It does not matter to us that it be done at a certain time, only that it be done today.” He went on explaining: “In Afghanistan, we may fight this day, or we may not. If we think we will fight today, and the enemy thinks we will fight today, then we will have a battle. It matters not that the battle occur in the morning or the afternoon.”

He probably didn’t know it, and I didn’t know it at the time, but he was accurately describing the difference between a clock-time culture and an event-time culture. We both saw time differently, he and I; he saw time as tied to events, and I saw time as tied to a clock. Each of us, in our own narrow view, saw the other as “wrong,” and ourselves as “right.” The fact is, each of us were both right and wrong.

How much are you tied to the clock? How much do we think things “must” and “should” happen at a certain time, and in a certain way? How often, other than perhaps a random Sunday, do we take the time to consider that time is not tied to a clock, but instead is tied to an event? In his excellent book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes just how fluid our concept of time is, how we get “lost” in those activities that have great interest for us. Writing, perhaps, or machining, making music.

Take the time in the coming days to consider how you are tied to the clock. What, really, would happen if you were more fluid and flexible? If you were more accommodating and less rigid? I’d like to hear your thoughts about it, and be more open to what life could be rather than making life be what you think it must be. It might be a good way to reduce some of the unnecessary stress we carry around.

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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.