Pusillanimity: Why I’m Late to Church

“We are going straight to Hell,” I mutter to my husband as we skulk into church, ten minutes late. Again. Before you develop the same sympathy for us that you have for the harried single mother dragging her four, half-dressed barbarians through the door ahead of us, let me clarify. We have no children. We live ten minutes away. The service starts at 11 a.m. We have no excuses.

Contrary to my dark pronouncement above, however, our tardiness is not due to lack of piety, but pure pusillanimity.

Weird Words and Why They Matter: Pusillanimity

Pusillanimity means timidity or cowardice.[1]  Most often people use the adjective form, pusillanimous, as in “My pusillanimous wife did not want to steer our kayak into the waterfall.” (Sorry, Honey, but one of us needs a sense of self-preservation.) You can hear the cowardice in the word itself. Those sibilants slinking their way through your teeth to -mous ending, which, if you add an –e, conjures the image of a mouse cowering before a cat.

This delightful word to describe a not-so-delightful state of being came to us in the late 14th century from Middle French pusillanimité and Church Latin pusillanimitaten, both meaning “faintheartedness.” [2] A great word, but why, you ask, would I apply it to showing up on time for church?

The Scariest Part of a Church Service

For those unfamiliar with American Protestant church services, they typically begin with a song or signal to draw the gutsy punctual people into the sanctuary. Next come announcements. After the pastor encourages everyone to volunteer in the nursery and bring something to the potluck next Saturday, he will speak words that strike fear into the hearts of introverts everywhere:

“Please stand and greet one another.”

 Oh, the horrors.

My husband and I dubbed this “The 90 Seconds of Awkward.” Too short to have a real conversation, but far too long just to shake hands, this part of the service taught me I can smile and grind my teeth simultaneously. After saying “good morning,” to the surrounding parishioners, I have 60 seconds remaining to awkwardly smile at strangers, or worse, people I met last week whose names I’ve forgotten. Worse still is if one them is a youth pastor who mistakes me for a teenager and asks how old I am.

“I’m 27.”

“Oh.”

45 seconds of awkward left.

My husband and I have an arsenal of strategies designed to avoid this 90 seconds. From conveniently timed bathroom breaks to extended slurps at the drinking fountain, the most effective by far is showing up late. We are so adept in our pusillanimity that we time our arrival to coincide with the last 30 seconds of awkward. Everyone is still standing, so no one notices we’re late, but by the time we find our seats, greeting time has ended. Hallelujah.

Why I Should Be On Time

In my journey to expand my vocabulary, I have found many life lessons. While reflecting on pusillanimity I learned this: church is a hard place to be an introvert. We attend church to learn about God and to embrace the challenge to live differently in light of what we’ve learned. For me, that challenge is the simple act of dragging myself past the army of grinning greeters—why do six different people need to welcome me?—into a room filled with people I vaguely recognize.

Human beings are not meant to live in isolation, even introverts. Whether or not you believe God created us this way, I could cite dozens of studies on the benefits of relationships to health and longevity. I know this is true. I have felt the impact of deep and lasting friendships in my own life. Friendships are no problem for me. It’s starting them that’s difficult.

In light of this, I have made a goal to overcome my pusillanimity and arrive on time for church. I will grind my teeth, smile, and cling to the hope of a day when 90 seconds isn’t enough time to greet all the people I’ve come to love. I will shake people’s hands, no matter how sticky, knowing someday these 90-second greetings may become 90-minute coffee dates.

Next time one of you extroverts greets someone whose handshake is stiff and whose smile borders on grimace, know that she may not be the callous misanthrope you think she is. She may be a pusillanimous 27-year-old who spent all of her courage just to get herself in that room.

Please be gentle.

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[1] “Pusillanimity | Origin and Meaning of Pusillanimity by Online Etymology Dictionary.” Accessed February 11, 2019. https://www.etymonline.com/word/pusillanimity.

[2] “The Definition of Pusillanimity.” http://www.dictionary.com. Accessed February 11, 2019. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pusillanimity.

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