Under even the best of circumstances, life is full of unwelcomed waiting. We wait in lines. We wait for call-backs. We wait for others to arrive. We wait in daily traffic. And we’ve all been doing a lot more waiting than usual over the past few months. As part of the Coronavirus pandemic, most of us have been sheltered-in-place at home except for high priority purchases, emergency medical treatments, and going to work for essential jobs that still employ some of us. While things are slowly and incrementally opening back up in a few parts of the world, we’re anxiously awaiting a vaccine or miracle anti-viral medicine. And we’re waiting for things to return to some sense of normalcy. We’re experiencing a painful and difficult, but very necessary, holding pattern around life’s important activities like seeing friends, neighbors, and families in person again. Around physically returning to work at our offices, factories, restaurants, stores, and construction sites. Resuming our paychecks and paying overdue bills. Getting our children back to their previous school routines. Going, once again, to our places of worship. Heading out for coffee or dinner with others. Or even watching live sporting events on TV.
On a deeper level, though, we’re waiting to feel free and safe again when we’re around larger groups of people. We’re waiting for the ability to stop fretting about social distancing, herd immunity, flattening the virus curve, and mourning the unspeakable loss of so many lives on our planet. We’re waiting for the end of the shared communal trauma that we’ve all experienced over the past few months. Now, moving out of our current places of social distancing, isolation, fear, and anxiety will take some time. Getting back to feeling more ‘normal’ again will be difficult– a painfully slow and uneven process during the months and even years ahead. In the meantime, managing our intensely difficult ‘Waiting Games’ will require a lot from us: our collective patience, openness, mindfulness, grace, calm, and hope.
Waiting on anything isn’t natural for most of us in life. The dictionary defines ‘waiting’ as a state of remaining where we currently are. Stationary or inactive. It means that we delay or defer something until a future time…. and that something stays ‘unrealized’ for the moment. The definition of the word isn’t all that flattering, to be honest. And its actual manifestation in our lives isn’t wonderful either. For we don’t feel good about waiting on someone or something. Or anything, really. As a result, we often wait anxiously. With dread and fear or with unrealistically high expectations for what’s coming down the road. Conversely, we may wait passively in a defeatist resignation that we’ll never influence the outcome anyway. Or with a dull sense of inner numbness, as we strive to cover-up and mask our actual feelings about the unwanted pause. Many of us wait more actively, though. We work feverishly in order to fill up our empty time and space by staying busy. We feel an urgent need to fight off boredom. So, we randomly move around a lot, even if it represents an undirected energy and effort. In whichever ways we choose to respond to waiting, most of us aren’t very good at managing it.
This is because we typically view waiting as punitive or unnatural. It’s akin to being trapped in an uneasy, temporary, and place-holding middle ground. Between opposite feelings about possible future outcomes for us. Between despair (for the present) and hope (for the future). Or even more generally, between past and future—yesterday and tomorrow. In these ways, our present waiting is nothing more than an uncertain and unsettling bridge. An unavoidable, interminable, and meritless process for us. Especially when we think that we need to be somewhere else right now. When we’re in a hurry to leave something uncomfortable or unsettling behind. Or get to another place as soon as possible. Or resume something on an urgent basis. It’s an interlude that we’d rather move on from. But this view of things isn’t terribly helpful to us. And, as we’ll see, there’s more to waiting than meets the eye.
My Great Aunt, Alice Tucker, was a 20th Century mathematics scholar, teacher, thought pioneer, naturalist, avid writer, life-long vegetable gardener, and spiritual seeker. More importantly, on a personal level, she was a deeply caring, attentive, and encouraging adult mentor and friend to me during my growing-up years. In a published newspaper piece that she wrote much later in her life, she shared a story with her readers about her backyard garden one autumn day. On far deeper level, she reflected on the spirituality of waiting. She wrote:
“There is a sharpness in the air. Yet, in the sun, there’s also the sweet remnants of this past summer. I like to step outside my back door and look. Raked leaves cover the carrots against the coming cold of winter. A recent frost has withered the tomato and squash vines. Corn stalks are now yellow. The grass and rose bushes just stay quiet, accepting the longer shade of autumn. For the moment, they simply pause. As do I at this time. I stand and muse with no need to drive, to plan, or to do things. Instead, I take my place among the other forms of life that prepare for a transition, entering into the halcyon days of acceptance. For nature has a way of closing down that makes what comes become what ought to come. So too for me.”
In her newspaper article, my great aunt Alice contemplated not just her backyard vegetable garden that afternoon. She saw this experience as a larger metaphor for her own life, as well. She deeply valued the stillness of her waiting spaces as truly sacred times. And it was just like her to use nature as a metaphor for inevitable human waiting.
Early in my life, she also taught me that sustenance for a tree’s life resides not in the tall, stately tree itself— but in the nutrients embedded in the tree’s own numerous small leaves. She understood that it is underneath (and within) the changing, beautiful, and color-splashed splendor of autumn leaves that the real work is quietly and unperceptively going on. Before a tree’s graying leaves subsequently drop to the ground in late fall, their internal composition has been chemically disassembled—providing key nutrients for absorption by the host tree to ensure its winter survival. So, thanks to my great aunt, I’ve learned that there’s a lot more going on than only a colorful, summer-to-winter ‘bridge’ time. In fact, a transformational and internally interactive process (between the tree and their leaves) is also always happening. Born of waiting.
But what can we take away on a more practical level here? When viewed in human behavioral terms, there’s real substance to be gained when we’re open to staying with (and remaining in) our inevitable, sometimes uncomfortable, waiting processes in life. We do so when we actively change our perspectives in order to see these periods in more purposeful ways. For example, we can leverage our down-time to contemplate what’s ‘come before’ in our respective pasts. To reflect upon and to harvest our memories for greater sustenance, wisdom, and insights. Or to create some healthy closure around our past actions, feelings, experiences, and words. Or to finally let go of our past hurts, disappointments, and setbacks in life.
Conversely, we can percolate new thoughts and ideas for the future. Or use the time to learn something different. To share a new story or some wisdom with another person. Alternatively, we can use the space for more mindfulness in our lives. To become more relationally present with people and things around us. Or to draw closer to God. Admittedly, it’s often not easy to do these things. Especially in the face of our current global pandemic– when our world, our routines, and our very lives are ‘upside down’ right now. But, even in these trying, ‘on-hold’ days, we can still find real meaning and purpose. Perhaps in unexpected ways and places.
That’s because underneath the surface of things, much good can actually happen in the stillness of waiting if we more fully embrace this challenging, but sacred, time. In so doing, we’re both affecting and being affected by the outside world. We’re becoming a greater part of a dynamic and experiential interaction with God, with each other, and with all living things. Beneath the seeming pause of waiting, much preparation, sustenance, and growth are underway provided we use this time wisely. For the Waiting ‘Game’ is not an act of standing pat. It is not a lull, a stoppage, a period of inaction, or an absence of realization. Nor is it a time of mere longing and anticipation for something better. And it’s not a game either for that matter. For we’re not in it to win it. It’s not a competition with others. Instead, it’s a time for each of us to purposefully nourish, sustain, grow, and transform ourselves from deep within… if only we’ll slow down and wait.