Can I Put You On Hold?

Reflections in Recovery

Bill’s East Dorset Vermont house
A few days ago I called my dentist’s office to confirm an appointment. Can I put you on hold? inquired the receptionist. Sure, I replied. On goes the elevator music. I waited. And waited. And waited.

Normally, I don’t make calls before or after I sit down to write. In fact, I avoid all contact with the outside world, lest I get distracted or sidetracked altogether. I wait till my workday is over. First things first.

But it was well into April and I hadn’t received the usual call asking me to confirm the appointment customarily scheduled at the conclusion of the last visit. Besides, I had never encountered a problem when calling the office before. So I took a chance and broke my regular discipline. Not surprisingly, it was a mistake. After about ten minutes, I hung up and went on with my work.

A couple of hours later, I called again, thinking they might not be as busy. Same voice. Same question. Ok, I said. Same mindless music. I suspected I was in for a repeat performance. I’ll give her 12 minutes, I thought. This time, however, I didn’t wait with my cell to my ear. Instead, I put it on speaker phone and continued to work.

Just about the time the 12 minutes were up, the receptionist came back on the line. She offered no apology for the unusually long wait. Nor did I try to elicit one. It turns out I didn’t have an appointment. She scheduled one, I thanked her, and that was that. Back to work. 

Reflecting on the experience later, I tried to understand what had happened. I took inventory. Now, the idea of continuing to take inventory in Step 10 is generally thought to apply to situations where we don’t handle things well. And that is correct. In such situations, we want to examine where we’ve gone wrong so that we can improve and do better next time, and so that we can make amends where appropriate.

But the larger principle involved is that we need to continue to monitor ourselves and learn from our experience so that we can continue to grow. This is typically done with negative experiences, but it can also be done with positive ones. I can be done with those we don’t do well in, and with those we do. Some of us make it a habit to take stock in both. We find out what doesn’t work and try to stop doing it; we find what works and try to do more of that.

Poor service is a fact of life. So is having to wait. Being put on hold for an unreasonable length of time is not pleasant. When it happens twice in a row it can be trying. When waiting or any sort of delay threatens to interfere with our work or something else we may consider important, it can be very trying. We can get impatient, frustrated, angry. A little thing can become a big thing. For some of us, that’s how it was when we drank. Patience was not one of our strong points.

It probably isn’t with most people. That’s why when we’re put on hold we’ll often get a canned message like: “We apologize for the delay. We appreciate your patience. The next available representative will answer your call as soon as possible. Thank you for waiting.”

The first line of defense against impatience (and its emotional corollaries) is to exercise some prudence and avoid exposing ourselves to situations that might arouse it. That’s why I don’t make calls when I’m working. Misled by an unfounded sense of urgency, I made an exception. I was wrong.

But something interesting happened. The experience didn’t bother me in the least. That may be unremarkable for normal people. It isn’t for this alcoholic. Moreover, except for the time I wasted on the first call, it didn’t interfere with my work at all. I was able to pick up the thread of my thought and continue writing. 

How come? What was different from previous such experiences? Looking back, I realized I had completely accepted the situation. I had seen it for what it was. One of those things. Par for the course. What surprised me, however, was that I had been able to do it twice. Normally, the burden of time involved in waiting weighs more heavily the second time around. Repeat offenses shorten one’s fuse. It makes acceptance harder.

That’s where the speaker phone comes in. For all I know, everyone uses that feature of their cell when they’re put on hold. They probably don’t do it out of any philosophical understanding or to practice any principle. They just want to go on doing whatever it is they’re doing. And that’s precisely what I wanted to do. I wanted to go on writing. So I did something I had never done before. I used the speaker phone.

And it worked. The second wait seemed shorter than the first. I was almost unaware of it. By taking my attention away from the fact of waiting, the speaker phone had effectively reduced the sense of waiting. While I was waiting objectively speaking, I wasn’t waiting psychologically. There was no mental involvement. Hence the absence of a disruptive effect, materially or emotionally. I didn’t get impatient. I was able to maintain my serenity and remain productive. I was able to wait well, with equanimity and detachment.

By accident, I had come upon another tool to help me practice patience. Thus the benefit of continuing to take personal inventory, with regards to negative as well as to positive situations, in matters big and small. It can help us find ways to “practice these principles.” 

For more on the practice of patience, see The Virtue of Patience  and In All Our Affairs: Practicing Patience, in Practice These.  For another reflection on emotion and perception, see One Pedal at a Time. 

[Posted 04/25/18. Image: Bill W.'s East Dorset, Vermont home in the old days.] 

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