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The Art of Waiting


A man who is a master of patience is master of everything else.George Savile

Even Hello Kitty has to check her mail while waiting for the escalator to go down

We don’t like to wait.  Incessant texting, smart phone and ipod fiddling, road rage, call waiting, curbside grocery pick up, and televisions everywhere from doctors’ waiting rooms to gas station pumps attest to our detestation of simply waiting.

While at the grocery store the other day, I nearly rolled over a 9 or 10 year old girl parked cross legged on the floor, leaning against a display of tea boxes, agile thumbs flying across a tiny screen as she played a video game.  The girl’s mother was selecting cereals across the aisle.  The woman didn’t even have a grocery cart; she was toting one of those small plastic baskets used for short shopping trips. They couldn’t have been in the aisle for more than a couple of minutes, and yet the child was already down for the count.

“Come on,” said her mother. “I’m done. Let’s go.”

The girl lingered, tring to finish her game.

“Come oonnnn,” urged the mother, in a tone of rising annoyance.

The girl stood without looking up and mechanically followed her mother to a check out lane, still playing.

At the airport recently, on my return trip from Manchester, NH, I noticed a little boy, probably no older than six, wearing earphones and intently watching a movie on a small portable DVD player.  I was impressed with his unwavering focus.  His mother sat next to him chatting with someone.

When we boarded the plane more than an hour later, the same family was boarding ahead of me, and I realized the little boy was still engrossed in whatever he was watching and, in fact, had never once looked up from the little screen, and was proceeding, with surprising skill and agility, down the airplane aisle with his full attention still on the screen.

I wasn’t sure whether to be awed or saddened.  I felt a little of both.

All three of my mostly grown children work with  youth groups from time to time, at outdoor camping or nature programs, or educational camps, and all three have commented on the number of children who, at the first hint of downtime, even if it’s just a temporary lull in activity, turn instantly to electronic devices.

While no one’s ever been particularly fond of waiting or of waiting rooms, waiting, and the rooms we wait in, have always offered good opportunities for reflection, reading and writing.   In years past, I’d read countless books, and finished countless letters (letters – plur. Noun –  hand written missives on paper mailed through the US Postal Service to friends and family for the purposes of sharing news and stories and telling them they’re cared for!) and articles sitting in waiting rooms. Today, it can be hard to concentrate on the written word with loud impersonally spoken ones bombarding our ears from television sets and monitors, often from several locations, and sometimes set to different sound-clashing stations.

It’s not that I’m anti-multitasking. It’s the “tasks” we engage in, with which I sometimes take issue.  I’ve seen parents pushing children in strollers or in shopping carts, neither speaking to nor even looking at those children,  eyes fixed elsewhere, speaking to invisible conversants on Bluetooth headsets or texting.  I’ve seen friends sitting next to each other fixated on screens instead of one another.

Perhaps we can take a page from the recent World Listening Day, event, and hold a World Waiting Day, in the service of regaining the lost art of casual waiting. For waiting, used well and with purpose, is a deeply vital art.  In our earliest human history, those who waited best, watching, evaluating, learning –  survived longest.

Grocery stores are where most of us hunt and gather these days, and so present marvelous opportunities to pass on food lore, comparative shopping skills, nutritional insights and more.  We have unhealthy eating habits because we have unhealthy shopping habits. “Being” at a grocery store, like being anywhere else, can provide rich rewards.

Waiting together, for food to cook slowly.

The daughter and mother in the grocery store could have been talking, going over prices and labels together, considering meals and recipes, sharing stories of their day.  The produce section alone is like a trip around the world. I remember lingering over a display of pomegranates, when my kids were young, and telling them about this remarkable and ancient Fruit of the Gods , and then sitting beneath a tree in our yard later on, picking apart the sweet juicy fruit together.

The child at the airport, no doubt much to fellow passengers relief, was quietly occupied, true.  But might both he and his parents better benefitted from more active engagement with each other? Some of our fondest memories as a family – for both my husband and myself, and for our children – are of times spent traveling together, which often involved long waits together; time we spent pouring over maps together, talking about our plans, people watching, and conversing with other travelers, broadening our children’s world views.

Wait quietly. See things.

Those preoccupied with electronic games and communications can miss more enriching experiences with their immediate human companions and natural surroundings. Most of the photos I’ve taken in recent months were of experiences, sights and scenes enjoyed while waiting – waiting at a park for my son to get out of a class, waiting for my daughter at the Renaissance Fair or MetroCon, or to wrap up at a campsite.  Many of my articles are written in waiting rooms and some of the best books I’ve ever read were finished waiting at an airport.

It’s nice that we have the options of Solitaire and Angry Birds to liven up our waiting sometimes.  But I think it’s even nicer to talk to the people right beside you; to read; to use every opportunity with your children and friends and family, to share experiences, insights, skills and stories; to use downtime for exercises both artistic and reflective.

Waiting isn’t the enemy. It’s an opportunity.

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