The art of waiting

By Deirdre Good

In the series on the BBC’s Radio 3, Something Understood, Tom Robinson this week considers the idea of waiting. This idea needs defending in today’s world of instant gratification. One can indeed work towards something. Some things just take awhile. I might wait for the roses to bloom each summer. Or for the sun to rise. Or for a birthday. Or for a bird to appear at the feeder. This is expectant waiting. But it depends on an awareness of durative time. As a child, I remember saying to my Mother in frustration, “When will I be six?” and, with only a vague notion of time, finding the answer “next July” incomprehensible.

Of course one might wait in vain for something to happen. The roses might be infested with Japanese beetles. It might rain all day long. No bird finds the birdseed appealing. But waiting is part of life. Think of the waiting room in a railway station. This is a transitory place in which people wait expectantly. Perhaps the walls are covered with timetables. Perhaps there’s a monitor showing times of trains arriving and departing. I’ve conversed with complete strangers in train waiting rooms on the basis of shared expectations. I expect delivery rooms offer similar experiences. I’ve been in gynecologists’ offices abuzz with anticipation. But airports can be places of interminable waiting, only partially offset by retail opportunities.

There are professions involving waiting: waiters in restaurants and shop assistants in shops, for example. It can’t be easy to wait on people, conveying the ability to serve at a moment’s notice.

Servants must spend hours waiting even if they are paid for it. This can be a kind of passive waiting. Anyone in a relationship or a family knows that waiting for someone to get ready to do something is a frequent experience. We wait for our children to finish getting dressed; we wait for family members to join us in a trip to the shops. Or we wait for results of an examination or a test. This kind of waiting is about patience. There’s less of it about. People used to wait far more than they do now–for letters, for phone calls, for visits. Remember the songs about waiting for the phone to ring or the letter to be delivered through the door?

The kind of waiting in relationships is negotiated waiting. I want to be patient but whilst I wait I am tempted to do something else. Julian and I once agreed not to begin something else whilst waiting for the other to be ready. It was only partially successful. We still negotiate with each other: “Be ready in five minutes!” “Can you wait while I finish this email?”

We want to eradicate waiting. Today we Skype our friends and families across the world instantly. We expect immediate results. We are impatient: New Yorkers want it yesterday, we say wryly. But waiting is about valuing someone or something else enough to put my life on hold even for a short while. Not everything is about me. Not everything comes at once. Waiting acknowledges the claim of the other and that there are worthwhile things that only come through waiting. I’m thinking of insight as well as cups of tea.

There is a kind of waiting that longs for something other than material objects: understanding or meaning or faith. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wrote that the purpose of education was to develop the faculty of attention, of waiting. Such an attitude, she said, consists of suspending our thoughts and bringing our minds to a state of receptive expectation. We need not seize upon an idea too hastily, she advised, but rather train ourselves in eager waiting to receive truth. “Prayer consists of attention,” she wrote. She thought of prayer as the highest focus of a soul toward God.

So next time someone we love asks if we’ll wait while they get ready, or we are stuck with a delayed flight, let’s not growl and open up the ipod. It could be a wonderful chance to improve our prayer lives and wait on God.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

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