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The Wisdom of Waiting

What’s to savor about waiting?

“Everyone is just waiting,” Dr. Seuss wrote in “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” saying the most useless place is the waiting place. Dr. Seuss is particularly poignant now. We’re all waiting for a cruel winter to end and for a COVID-19 vaccine to arrive. We’re waiting to hug and kiss each other again, to travel freely, and to linger in restaurants over dessert. Waiting is like a screen door that keeps us from going outside, while inside, we sit in frustration and anger about how our lives are on hold. So much of our existence involves waiting; you’d think we’d be good at it by now. There are rooms, cues, and sidewalk benches to waylay us until the main event begins—until we get called into the doctor’s office, reach the grocery store checkout, or the next bus arrives. Waiting is a cultural institution. Nonetheless, we don’t like to idle our engines. We get antsy for packages to come, for sprained ankles to heal or for employers to tell us we got the job. Technology’s instant gratification and convenience only supercharges our inherent impatience.

The Gifts of Waiting

And, yet, there’s wisdom in waiting. Sometimes, it’s the only sane thing to do. Delays can be providential. And time has a way of honing our perceptions and skills in meaningful ways. Leonardo Da Vinci started painting the Mona Lisa in 1519, working on it intermittently over several years. It was still in his studio when he died 16 years later. I could go on and on, naming other things—from slow-cooked stews to saplings to teak furniture— that benefit from biding time. True, the cliché: “Good things come to those who wait” is an annoying bit of insight. It’s like the lollipop you got as a kid after the dentist yanked out your wisdom teeth. But what if we took the bromide to heart? Could we open to the gifts waiting brings? Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor who famously molded “The Thinker,” the bronze statue of a man lost (waiting) in thought, said: “Patience is also a form of action.”

We can make waiting an active event by bringing mindfulness to it. We can notice what having our plans thwarted stirs up inside of us—the rat-a-tat-tat of thoughts of wanting for things to be different, the tapping foot of agitation rippling through our body, and the fragments of frustration welling in our heart. We also can use waiting as an opportunity to explore our capacity for patience. We can feel the steadiness of composure and notice how it differs from the hum of upset that typically plays within us like Muzak when we wait. We can even explore if it’s possible to appreciate moments, weeks, or months of downtime.

Absorbing All the Details

Jennifer Roberts, a humanities professor at Harvard and an art historian, instructs her students on the value of waiting or, more specifically, “deceleration and immersive attention” through a creative assignment. Before students write a research paper on an art object, Roberts requires them to spend a painfully long three hours attending to it. Roberts did the assignment herself, staring for hours at John Singleton Copley’s “Boy with a Flying Squirrel.” She said it took her nine minutes to notice how the boy’s ear echoed the ruff of the squirrel’s belly. It took another 21 minutes for her to realize the fingers holding the chain span the same diameter as the water glass beneath them. More revelations came as the minutes passed, enhancing her understanding and appreciation of the painting. Robert’s exercise isn’t just about art history. It’s also about cultivating a deeper relationship with time and how we can use it more wisely—not to manage it better and get more done, but rather to let periods of slowness inform us. When we use our attention to soak up our experience, we can discover the wealth within our lives. Doing so contrasts the hurried, get-it-done momentum of much of our daily lives. Sometimes, though, the most worthwhile insights about ourselves, others, and the world around happen when we’re waiting.

Try the WAIT Practice

To make a mindfulness practice out of cooling your heels, recall an acronym: W-A-I-T or Watch, Allow, Investigate, and Take a Breath.

  • WATCH the fireworks of reactivity you experience whenever you wait. Does impatience arise when the customer service representative at an airline, a cable company, or the DMV puts you on hold? Are you expecting things to be different?

  • ALLOW whatever is arising to be there. Waiting and impatience are a very human combination. Somewhere out there, others are waiting, too, and feeling just as frustrated as you.

  • INVESTIGATE how the act of waiting feels in your body. Do you clench your jaw and brace your core more tightly as each moment slowly passes? Relax and soften your body.

  • TAKE a purposeful breath in and out. Once, twice, three times. After all, you might be waiting a while.


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