The waiting started in February. First, I waited for the virus to make the jump from the south to the north of the Netherlands, then I waited for the Dutch government to announce a lockdown. I waited for news that ICU admissions had begun to decline; I waited for schools to reopen; I waited for the existing restrictions to be eased and for new measures to be announced. Currently, I’m waiting for the second wave of infections to hit (if it hasn’t already by now); I’m waiting for a vaccine or a cure; for more inevitable protests or for people to pull together in solidarity.
And looming above it all, casting a shadow over the months to come, is the Great Wait: the Great Wait for the end of the pandemic.
Not that things have completely come to a standstill. On the contrary: from Black Lives Matter to the Beirut explosions, from alarming droughts to record-breaking heatwaves, the world is in many ways as turbulent as ever. For my family, there have been changes both great and small: we moved into a new home, the summer holidays came and went, and my daughter finally lost her first tooth. We celebrated births and mourned deaths – thankfully, more of the former than the latter. For now, anyway.
There’s plenty going on, but much of it feels uncertain, unfinished. And yes, I’m well aware of just how privileged I am. Here in the Netherlands, we’ve been able to move freely all this time, making the waiting a lot more bearable than in other places. And at least I had the luxury of waiting: I didn’t have to work gruelling shifts on the front lines in the hospital, and none of my loved ones became seriously ill. Not yet.
But even from my place of privilege, this Great Wait – for a breakthrough, for recovery, for life to really get going again – weighs heavily on me. I feel restless, listless, sluggish, and irritable. I wear my mask, I practice social distancing and I follow the guidelines, but inside I’m furious – not about any particular policies or people, but about the waiting itself.
We’ll never truly eliminate waiting (and even brief waits can be agonising)
No doubt my anger stems from the fact that waiting makes us feel powerless, especially when it’s imposed on us and when there’s no end in sight. “When will the coronavirus be over?” my son wants to know as we cycle along – I suspect he’s had it with all the garishly coloured barricade tapes and floor stickers that have sprouted up everywhere. “No idea!” I snap as I pedal grimly onwards into the wind. In this case, I know no more than he does; I’m as helpless as a pre-schooler.
It’s likely that my irritation also has to do with the fact that waiting confronts us with the passage of time, as Jason Farman, professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, writes in his book Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World. The act of waiting makes us more aware of how time passes, which is why waiting can make us feel cheated, even when it’s not caused by something as drastic as a pandemic. As the time slowly ticks away, we can’t help but think about all the other things we could have been doing instead.
Waiting makes us aware of the passage of time – and, by extension, of the fact that life itself is fleeting, too.
Now, in the era of instantaneous communication, frictionless design, and same-day delivery, waiting has come to be considered “an antiquated practice that needs to be eliminated”, writes Farman in Delayed Response. He also points out that we shouldn’t hold our breath: despite the great strides we’ve made in communication speeds over the last several centuries, we still haven’t managed to eradicate waiting – on others, on answers, on things to change. While we only have to wait for a few seconds for a reply to our texts, rather than waiting weeks for a letter, those few seconds can be just as agonising – precisely because we’ve come to expect an immediate response.
According to Farman, waiting is not only universal and inescapable; it reveals societal inequalities as well. Think about it: patients wait on doctors, job applicants on employers, and reporters wait on the prime minister. It’s never the other way around. If you have enough money, you can jump the queue or pay someone else to wait in your place. But if you’re living in poverty, you’ll find yourself queuing up endlessly: at government offices, at the food bank, or on the phone with the IRS. In fact, making people wait is one of our severest forms of punishment: in prison, inmates spend months or even years waiting until they can rejoin society.
Waiting makes us powerless; those who are powerless must wait.
Waiting dictates the pace of family life (and life in general)
There’s also another, less political, form of waiting that is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. It lasts just long enough to be felt, but not too long to be endured. I experience this form of waiting throughout the day: I wait for my coffee to brew, for the light to turn green, for inspiration to strike, for responses to my messages. I wait for the metro, the post, the elevator, and for Godot. I wait for things to begin, and once they’ve begun, I wait for them to end.
Another frequent source of waiting, for me, is my children. I wait for them to finish brushing their teeth, to put on their shoes, to quickly grab a favourite toy to take with them. During the day, I wait for their bad moods, tantrums, and squabbling to pass; in the evenings, I wait for them to fall asleep. Only when they’ve finally nodded off do I feel like “my time” has come.
My children wait for me, too. They wait for me to finish combing their hair, cleaning their glasses, and putting sunscreen on their golden skin. They wait until I’m back from my run, until I’m done showering, until I have time to read to them. They wait for my pure, undivided attention.
Some days, we manage to settle into a comfortable rhythm together. Other days, a constant stream of variations on “please wait” seems to pour from my mouth: “wait a minute”, “not now”, “just a sec”, “almost done”, “hang on”, “I’ll be right there”, “hold your horses”, “I SAID NOT YET!”. These past few months, we’ve had more of the latter sort of days than the former, what with the schools being closed, working from home, and the children’s summer holidays. I can’t wait until it’s all over.
Life is a lot easier if you know how to wait
Of course, my struggles, such as they are, are nothing out of the ordinary. Life with children is rarely harmonious. Besides, it’s our job as parents to teach our children the virtue of patience – to teach them to wait calmly and without complaining, to help them understand that boredom and powerlessness are inherent to waiting, and to show them how to handle that. Life is a lot easier, after all, if you can master the art of waiting patiently; if you don’t get frustrated when the light turns red or feel miffed when you see that your text message has been read but that the other person has not yet replied.
Patience is a necessary ingredient for discipline
Not only does patience make life more bearable; it’s also a necessary ingredient for yet another crucially important skill: the ability to make yourself wait. For discipline, I mean; for self-control and the capacity to prioritise long-term goals above short-term desires. As children, we need such discipline when learning to play an instrument or how to do a cartwheel. Later in life, discipline helps us to work hard at our studies and save money. And when we meet the right person, self-control enables us to gradually win over the object of our desire, beguiling them slowly, patiently, one step at a time.
This idea – that good things come to those who wait – is something we understand intuitively, and it explains the lasting appeal of the famous “marshmallow test” conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. In his experiment, researchers offered young children a choice: they could eat one marshmallow right then and there, or wait a few minutes and then have two.
Mischel was primarily interested in finding out at what age children develop the ability to delay gratification, to wait for a reward. But what made the marshmallow test famous was the fact that when Mischel followed up with the children years later, he found that those who had been better at waiting as children were also more successful as adults. Or, more accurately, they scored higher on metrics that we tend to regard as shorthand for “success”: better jobs, lower BMI and higher salaries.
The lesson seemed to be that if you want your children to do well later in life, you must teach them to wait; that waiting is a prerequisite for success.
Or, as the saying goes: patience is a virtue.
Waiting is a privilege not everyone enjoys
Alas, as is so often the case with widely held beliefs like this one, the truth is a lot more complex. A 2018 study that attempted to replicate Mischel’s results with a larger, more diverse group of children found that the correlation between young children’s ability to wait and their achievement as teenagers is a lot weaker than we’ve come to believe. In addition, this study seemed to suggest that the ability to wait mostly depends on children’s socioeconomic status and home environment. Kids who grow up in less affluent environments are less likely to pass the marshmallow test, and they tend to underperform academically compared to children from wealthy households with highly educated parents.
In other words: patience, and the ability to wait, are luxuries that not everyone can afford. If you’re living in poverty and are unsure whether your needs will be met from day to day, you may not be in a position to make long-term plans. You’re better off spending any extra cash you may have immediately, since you never know what tomorrow will bring. So while it may be true that patience is a prerequisite for success, the reverse is also true: success – a safe, stable environment – is necessary in order to be patient. The ability to wait is a privilege.
For those who can afford to wait, the rewards can be significant. Waiting makes things better – maybe not always, but often. A decade ago, two economists from the University of Chicago examined how being forced to wait for a product affects consumers’ perceptions of the product. They found that study participants who had to queue up to sample a new flavour of smoothie actually reported that the smoothie tasted better than participants who hadn’t had to wait.
Companies like Apple are well aware of this effect, which is why they announce new products far in advance of the actual launch date. As customers wait, their anticipation builds steadily, so that the actual purchase feels like a welcome release of tension.
Speaking of release: delaying sex – waiting until at least the third date or even until after marriage – is said to have a similar effect. “If I wait for you longer / My affection gets stronger,” sings Faroese artist Teitur in a song about long-distance relationships that I often listened to while writing my dissertation (speaking of delayed gratification) and carrying on a long-distance relationship myself. “Am I in love?” asks philosopher Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse (1978): “Yes,” he continues, “since I am waiting.”
Reframing waiting as a collective effort
Jason Farman concludes his book by proposing a number of “tactics for waiting”: strategies for avoiding feelings of impatience, frustration, resentment and uncertainty while we wait. According to Farman, it helps to stop thinking of time as something that belongs to you as an individual, and instead learn to see it as a collective resource that belongs to all of us.
Seen from this perspective, the person in front of you at the supermarket checkout who is taking forever to count out their coins and coupons isn’t wasting your time; they’re simply part of a society in which some people have to spend more time than others considering their purchases and making every cent count. And while no one enjoys being stuck in traffic due to roadworks, we all prefer to drive on safe, well-maintained roads. Just thinking about waiting as a form of solidarity in this way can help soothe our anger and help us to respond more calmly.
A useful question to ask yourself, says Farman, is “Who benefits from my waiting?” Maybe it’s your kids, or a patient on a hospital waiting list who gets to go ahead of you because their condition is more serious. Or maybe you yourself are the beneficiary of your own waiting.
Ask yourself: ‘Who benefits from my waiting?’
I know that Farman is right, and that his tactics work. Sometimes I too succeed in viewing time as he does – as a collective resource, a commons, rather than something that belongs exclusively to me. In those moments, I try to remember that “my time” is more than just the time I spend alone, that it includes the time I spend with my children as we negotiate a balance between our various needs and wants, however contradictory they may be. When I manage to keep this in mind, I realise I don’t have to feel resentful about waiting, because no one is actually taking anything from me.
To wait is to live
I’m not going to lie: applying these tactics effectively requires a decent amount of self-reflection and altruism, and I doubt that anyone pulls it off all the time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying – now, more than ever, as the modern mantra goes. The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, so we’ve got plenty of time to practise.
Actually, hang on a second.
The tactics are good tactics. I truly believe they work. I believe in the power of patience! But I also believe in the power of impatience. Restraint and moderation are great, but sometimes anger is better. Or just as legitimate, at any rate. Unpleasant situations don’t always have a lesson to teach us, and not every exercise in patience is worth the wait.
This Great Wait that has got us all in its grasp is truly agonising. It’s not a blessing in disguise, it’s not a privilege, and I’m increasingly convinced that nothing good is going to come of it. It’s an ugly, senseless form of waiting that benefits no one.
In On Waiting (2008), philosopher Harold Schweizer speculates that our aversion to waiting stems from the fact that it confronts us with the transience – and meaninglessness – of our existence. We hate waiting because deep down, we’re terrified that “waiting is all there is” – that there’s not much more to life than simply waiting out our time here on Earth.
But as paradoxical as it sounds, isn’t the awareness of our mortality precisely what gives life meaning?
So yes, this endless waiting is frustrating. And yes, it makes me feel impatient and powerless, like a wild animal trapped in a tiny cage, pacing and panting. It’s not a pretty picture, I know. But life isn’t always pretty, either. Meaninglessness is unbearable. Facing our mortality is terrifying – the idea that this will all be gone someday, that we’ll gradually find ourselves mourning more and more deaths and celebrating fewer and fewer births, and then: lights out. So let’s embrace the discomfort.
To live is to wait: I’m waiting, so I’m alive.
Translated from the Dutch by Megan Hershey.