I estimate that I spend about one-sixteenth of my life waiting. That may be average, I don’t know. I may wait a little more than some people because I’m somewhat obsessive about being late. One of the consequences of growing up in England with queues and rationing is the life-long assumption that whatever I’m waiting for will most likely be gone before I get there. So I have developed the habit of being places on time — often earlier than on time, to the dismay of dinner hosts.
I’m even on time when I secretly hope that what awaits me will, in fact, be gone when I get there. I arrive early and wait in airports numb with the horror of leaving the ground. I have never been convinced of heavier than air flight.
I wait for doctors and dentists, who make appointments with three other people for the same time as mine. I wait in line to pay for things, even after I have decided, while waiting, that I really don’t want what I’m going to buy, because, before reaching that decision I have already invested the time in waiting to pay for it. I wait for people who are late, people who do not share my obsession with being on time. I also wait for waiters in restaurants run by people who add to their profits by not hiring enough waiters to wait on those who wait.
Generally speaking, I think I am fairly good at this common kind of waiting. For one thing, as I say, I have had considerable experience. But also, out of necessity, I have taught myself some ways of waiting. During my time as a psychotherapist, I studied hypnosis and, in the process, learned some techniques of auto-hypnosis. In some situations, like waiting for an unpleasant experience to begin — in a dentist’s office, for example — I can put myself into a shallow trance state and, by auto-suggestion, convince myself that I’m waiting for something wonderful to happen. This does not work for me in airports.
I have also taught myself to think while waiting. One might assume that this is an obvious thing to do, but it really isn’t. Many people do not wait usefully but fall into wasteful “waiting behavior.” “Waiting behavior” is almost totally non-creative. Pacing up and down. Drumming fingers. Checking the watch. Brushing off lint. Cursing the thing or the person waited for. Fighting off the anxiety that often sneaks to the fore when we are not “keeping busy.”
I have also taught myself to compose, to “write” in my head. I once “wrote” an entire sermon in my head while waiting in line to have my car inspected. It was a good sermon, too. Unfortunately, I have a bad memory and have never recalled what that sermon was about.
There is another use for waiting time, more difficult for most of us than these others– and that is to “do” nothing. Not to pace, not to plan or compose, not to read or do crossword puzzles, not even to flip through magazines from back to front. But to “do” nothing. Not easy. Not at all easy. We westerners have not been trained to do nothing. Idle hands, we were told, are the devil’s workshop. There is that residual Puritanical sense that time, like food or scraps of cloth, must not be “wasted.” “Waste not, want not.” And the assumption is that doing nothing is a waste of time.
Time is almost always, for us, something which must be “used” or “filled.” We treat ourselves as if we were an extraordinarily expensive machine which must be kept in production virtually every moment in order to justify keeping it. From the point of view of some writers of funeral poetry the best that can be said of someone is that she or he died while in the midst of productivity. They would have us go with our log-splitting mauls poised in mid-air, with the shovel plunging into the earth, fingers on the keys, foot on the pedal. Some ministers want to go directly from their pulpit perorations to the great congregation in the sky. A final thump on the pulpit — then quick into the hands of God. For me, when I go, let me be lying on some green and pleasant land or on some desert mountain top staring at the circling birds, doing nothing. From nothing to nothingness.
Doing nothing while we wait is also difficult for us because we have learned to keep down the noise of the war within ourselves by the distraction of busyness. For some, it is not puritanical morality which keeps them busy but the nameless fear which wells up within them when activity stops, when the noise is stilled, when that outer world becomes quiet and the terrors of the inner world begin to stir. Trite to say, but true, we are strangers to ourselves and we fear the stranger within ourselves who appears while we wait who, while we are waiting, feels strange things, thinks peculiar thoughts, remembers — and threatens to repeat the secrets.
Even waiting with others is no reprieve from ourselves. The waiting room becomes a court of judgment and our fellow waiters our accusers. A few years ago Masterpiece Theater produced Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days. One of the most striking scenes was set in the ante-room to where the Banfield School Board of Trustees sat interviewing candidates for the position of Headmaster. Our hero, Powlett Jones, and his colleagues waited in absolute distraction and desperation, fidgeting, coughing, occasionally venturing an inane comment which fell like lead at their feet. But, across from them, in smug self-assurance and in disdain for his fellow waiters, sat the candidate from South Africa. With his controlled air of superiority, he sat as judge, his composure condemning the others of incompetence and imbecility.
What marvelous theater it is. On the simple set of a crowded waiting room. The appointment unavoidable. No Exit. And there, the hell of other people — seeing through our disguises as only strangers can: noting our bulging waistline, the spots on our ties and worse, far worse, reading in our traitorous faces the secrets of our sins and infirmities. What a microcosm of the human condition of estrangement, where we sit, not as companions, but each accused and judge of the other. To drop a magazine is an indiscretion to make the cheeks burn in chagrin. A failure. Whether or not to cross one’s legs, to call attention, requires more forethought and consideration than to change one’s occupation. The slightest distraction is relief; the ringing of the receptionist’s telephone, the entrance of another examinee, even an unruly child to become the focus. And whatever lies beyond the door, a root canal or the nameless void, is welcomed as escape from the hell of waiting.
All that has to do with one kind of waiting. There are two kinds waiting, though not unrelated. There is the waiting for the known event. Waiting for the airplane, the bus, the doctor. Waiting in traffic. Waiting for friends who, we will discover, think the dinner is next week. But there is another kind of waiting which, some have said, is life itself– living as waiting. Waiting for what? Ah. That is the question the answer to which makes all the difference.
“Life,” said Zorba the Greek, “is what you do while you’re waiting to die.” Zorba confronts us with the reality most of us would prefer to ignore — the limitation on our existence: the inevitability of death. That inevitability accepted, then life is what we do in the meantime: living as a way of filling the time of waiting. “Life is what you do while you’re waiting…” is, however, an unqualified and value-free statement. It says nothing about what kind of life or what kind of doing. Recognizing and accepting the reality of death, does not necessarily affect the quality of the waiting time between birth and the inevitable end.
In fact, coming to terms with the limits of existence can, and does for some, lead to despair. After all, if all this waiting comes, at the end, to nothingness, why wait? Using life merely to wait for another kind of existence after death has its dangers. Christianity has so described the beauty and bliss of heaven as to make some impatient with the wait to get in. Suicide must then be made a sin and hell the consequence for impatience with mortal waiting for release or eternal reward.
And for those who expect either eternal reward or punishment for the kind of life they live, for the quality of their waiting, there is motivation for at least attempting to do good and not evil and to make the best, not the worst, of the time filled in waiting. One might be surprised. If, at the end of it all, some cosmic clerk at the pearly gates were to smile and say, “Thank you for waiting. This way please.” It might have been worth it after all.
For others, however, perhaps for most of us here, the waiting is neither for reward nor for punishment. We enter life, take our place and wait — then exit. For us, then, the nature of our waiting — what we do while waiting — is critical. We are, as Zorba says, waiting to die and the waiting time must be, not a means to an end but an end in itself.
Robert Frost had an interesting thought on waiting. He said, “What you want, what you’re hanging around in the world waiting for, is for something to happen.” Hanging around waiting for something to happen. Life as prolonged adolescence. Standing on the corner waiting for an accident in the street or for a robber to come charging out of the bank, guns blazing, creating meaning.
I have discovered, for what it’s worth, that the Spanish word esperar, means both “to wait” and “to hope.” That makes sense, because waiting presumes that something is going to happen. We hope something will happen prior to the final happening. What it is that we hope for, what it is that we wait for, defines and qualifies the nature of our existence. This is a philosophical or theological problem which exists primarily for the middle class on up.
Gail Sheehy, in Pathfinders, says, “It might be said that anticipation is one of the truest measures of social class.” The rich, she says, think in decades. Poor people think about Tuesday all day Tuesday. Getting something to eat for Tuesday night is a full-time occupation. Those of us in the so-called middle class assume dinner, and clothing, warmth, shelter, education. We have the luxury of waiting for something to happen. Mere existence, a life-or-death struggle for some, is a colossal bore for others.
Walker Percy, a favorite author of mine, in his book Message in the Bottle, confronts us with our ambivalence in the face of impending disaster. If we hear, for example, that there is a hurricane approaching, we are naturally apprehensive. We do not want the wind to pick up our cars and throw them through our nice houses. But, we are also excited. Something might happen. A hurricane. A riot. A war.
We listen to the news reports as the disaster gets closer and closer. The hurricane strikes one state after another. The skies above us darken. The air becomes electrified. The trees begin to sway. Something is going to happen. But, then, the hurricane veers harmlessly out to sea. Are we relieved? Or are we disappointed? The fact that our home was not, in fact, destroyed, leaves room for us to be disappointed–not disappointed that all our belongings were not destroyed, not disappointed that no one was hurt or killed. We are simply disappointed that nothing happened. We waited. And nothing happened.
A long time ago, a young woman in Massachusetts pretended to have a spell put on her by a woman of the town because, as she said, “I had to have some sport.” She was bored. About two dozen people, as a result, were put to death as witches before the novelty wore off.
So, we are all hanging around, so it is said, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for what? Waiting for Godot, I suppose — Godot the unknown, who was supposed to arrive today, but didn’t: who promises to arrive tomorrow, but probably won’t. And we are not at all sure of what Godot has to offer, or if we will take the offer if he comes and if he offers it. But we come back each day, to wait.
Let me go back to the first half of this sermon — to the kind of waiting for planes and buses and dentists and parking spaces. I said that that kind of waiting is not entirely separable from life-as-waiting. Waiting for the plane, for example, implies that we have committed ourselves to something– to an idea, namely, that the plane will come, that it will be the right plane and that it will take us where we want to go.
A life lived hanging around merely waiting for something to happen is also based on a commitment to an idea, and that is the old idea of human dependency and helplessness. Though we have denied them and rejected their names, many of us still live waiting for fate or the gods to act, to make something happen. To set our own aims, to forge our own destinies, to decide for ourselves what will happen this is to gamble on human freedom. It is to decide not to wait any longer. And that requires courage.
In the history of Greek religion, there is an age called “The Failure of Nerve.” There was a period in which the Greeks embraced reason, and gave up their gods. But soon they became afraid without them, doubted their human capacity for self-sufficiency, and brought them back again. In Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, bored with their cosmic waiting in the void, keep saying that they are going, but they do not move. They are afraid. What if Godot comes, and is angry that they are not there? Hanging around waiting for something to happen is a failure of nerve. It is surrendering faith in oneself to gamble on the unknown. It’s a poor theology.
Giving up mere waiting, taking responsibility for making things happen, the creation of life, meaning, and purpose is also a theology. “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.” A colleague of mine, Dr. Forrester Church, says that, indeed, theology is all about what we make of life between the givens of birth and death.
We have, then, a theological choice about life — to hang around waiting to see what the gods have in store, to see if Godot will come and, if he does, what difference his coming will make. Or to fill our waiting time with action that makes things happen. “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse.” Vladimir says, in a burst of courage and independence in Waiting for Godot. “Let us do something, while we have the chance. On the other hand,” he says, nerve failing, “we would be no less a credit to our race if we folded our arms and weighed the pros and cons of it all while we wait.”
The choice of what to do while waiting is so magnificent, and the consequence of choosing so momentous, that I would not dare to tell you which you must do. I will suggest that you at least consider whether or not you are making a life while waiting to die or merely — waiting.