THE ART OF WAITING
The struggles and joys of sitting in the waiting room
Religions, philosophers and psychologists have long praised the virtue of patience, but what is there to learn from the most boring task of all? …Waiting.
If you've had to go through a period of waiting for something this year, or still are, read on.
I don’t know many people that like waiting. Do you?
No one ever enjoyed the feeling of waiting as things seemingly don't work as planned. WiFi wavering at a critical point of a video conference, car breaking down in the middle of traffic, confirmation that the gift has arrived...one week after it was supposed to (all privileged problems to have I'm aware!) But there’s a reason why “I’d rather watch paint dry” is an idiom to describe something we would rather not do.
No one likes watching life unfold as a passive actor.
Even though I'm known among friends as being pretty chilled out, I can admit there are times I’m not great at waiting- or at least, am very selective about what I choose to wait on. If I really dissect it, I think it’s because I like the freedom and independence to do things on my own time. I enjoy my own space and freedom. I was always that kid getting lost in stores because I had wandered off with my imagination, totally nonchalant about my parent's panic (...come to think of it,it makes total sense Home Alone would be my favourite Christmas film!).
As I've grown older I've recognised the risk of double standards with waiting though: when external experiences or people are making me wait, it's an audacity. Yet, when I make others wait due to my own deliberation process or perfectionism, I'm hoping that they are forgiving enough about the time I need. I hope they can somehow see my genuine remorse about keeping them waiting, don't take offence, and don't take it as a reflection of me not valuing them.
So part of the 'art of waiting' highlights an opportunity to get humble and realise others need the same grace we do.
For me, there’s a clear link between time and value. Perhaps this is at the core of waiting.
This year more than ever we have all been in the ‘waiting room’ of life. Waiting to hear about the health of loved ones, to know the rules of the next tiered system or when we can next see our friends. The reality is, as beautiful as it may be to be gracefully patient; sitting in uncertainty is uncomfortable.
So why is waiting in peaceful stillness hailed as something so worthy by spiritual practices around the world?
I was recently asked to write an article for a charity who work to build good relations between people of all faiths and beliefs, and to create a society where difference is celebrated. I chose to write this article on the topic of waiting because I think it's of universal relevance. Personally, through my own spiritual practice, I've been able to find peace 'in the waiting room' by being still and knowing the presence of something greater than me despite my wrestling to know the full plan. I don't think you have to have a particular faith practice though to gain from some reflections on waiting. Something I've learnt from my work on Interfaith relations over the years is that there is beauty in difference and think there is always something to be gained from an opposing viewpoint.
THE IDEA OF WAITING IN WORLD RELIGIONS
In Christianity, this time of year is one of the periods for waiting. The days leading to Christmas is known as Advent and is an expectant and hopeful countdown. At its core, it’s a chance to build on faith, generosity and loving your neighbour.
A favourite Advent Carol of mine though is ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’, because it rather candidly bursts that bubble of warm fuzzy Hallmark feels. It describes people waiting as ‘mourning in lonely exile here’. What a frank take on what it is like to have to wait on something we have been promised is good. For me, this song feels like a very human account of what it Advent is supposed to be a remembrance of.
Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words on the significance of waiting in this period says: "The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come."
So perhaps part of waiting well is the ability to live with hope about the future without glossing over the realities of the present?
In Hinduism, patience and forbearance are considered essential virtues. In ancient literature of Hinduism, the concept of patience is referred to with the word pariksaha (patience and forbearance, Sanskrit: परिषहा). Patience, in Hindu philosophy, is the cheerful endurance of trying conditions and the consequence of one's action and deeds (karma)
Waiting is a virtue of loving the process without depending on the outcome. Nonattachment to the vision of how you expected things would be.
In the Hindu holy book the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, it states: “Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.” This is because seeking reward binds us to the world. Instead, when we work with love and expect nothing, we are rewarded in the present.
In Islam, the image that comes to mind is various periods of waiting, fasting, and the life-long awaited pilgrimage to Mecca. A relationship with time seems to be evident throughout the faith.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend about the frequency of prayer five times a in his spiritual life. He told me “...it’s not about fitting prayers into my life, it’s about life fitting my prayer. Like all good relationships I like to stay connected to love.”
Reimaging the minutes and hours of the day around core values of being generous to others were apparent when I spoke to him. For Islam, patience with steadfast belief is called sabr (Arabic: صَبْرٌ ṣabr), and is one of the best virtues of life. Through sabr, a Muslim believes that an individual can grow closer to God and thus attain true peace.
In Buddhism, patience (Skt.: kshanti; Pali: khanti) is one of the "perfections" (paramitas) that a bodhisattva trains in and practices to realize perfect enlightenment. The Buddhist concept of patience is distinct from the English definition of the word.
I’ve visited a few Buddhist temples near where I live and on my travels, and have always seen how an embracing of time and practising patience marks Buddhist life. It doesn’t mean being a doormat to life’s circumstances; but rather getting the clarity to see what is most essential. In Buddhism, patience refers to not returning harm, rather than merely enduring a difficult situation. It is the ability to control one's emotions even when being criticized or attacked. In verse 184 of the Dhammapada it is said that 'enduring patience is the highest austerity'.
I could go on to think about what it means for traditional African spiritualities and connection with ancestors or Zoastrianism patience in spreading good thoughts, good words, and good deeds for example. Sikhs believe in the cycle of samsara in which, acting with love, compassion and patience towards others is key. The significance of this virtue is felt far and wide and is acknowledged among secular and non-faith based value systems too.
WHAT ARE THE TAKEAWAYS FOR EVERYONE? RELIGIOUS OR NOT?
Earlier this year a video of a certain celebrity family toddler went viral as her mother did trending TikTok challenge on her. I have to admit I was enamoured by how sweet it was.
Celebrity Kylie Jenner told her 2-year-old daughter, Stormi, that she could have three sweets if she waits for her to return from the bathroom. Stormi is seen looking, stopping herself, singing “patience patience” to herself and successfully waits for her mother’s return before being rewarded with the sweets she was promised.
The challenge was of course inspired by The Stanford marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification in 1972 led by psychologist Walter Mischel. In this study, a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes such as educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures.
Equally, in the natural world, some of the most beautiful parts of nature have been formed by years of growth, waiting and pressure. It’s our clutching at time that is interfering with these organic processes, and have led to the key concerns of climate change.
We are all creatures of time who live with it and in it, on the patch of chronology, we have been allotted. But if time is the foundational baseboard of our being, what happens to the structure of our lives in a culture of doing?
1. Waiting can be an act of generosity
Being generous with your own time is one of the best gifts to give. Generosity with time can also involve an acknowledging that others may take longer than you emotionally, cognitively, spiritually or physically to ‘arrive’ where you may want them to. This doesn’t devalue their worth, nor is it an inherent reflection on ill intentions. Even though by and large, people around us operate on the same understanding of time, the fact there are so many time-zones around the world and anthropological studies into how it can be measured says a lot. Be generous with the different ‘clocks’ we all live our lives by.
2. Waiting builds perseverance that can’t be built any other way
We love to back the underdog in sports or entertainment competition shows in whatever ‘Great British (fill-the-black-with-any-hobby-under-the-sun) television programmes. I think it’s because we get to see their journey, from being the ‘least-likely’ to being victorious. There’s a beauty in accompanying others in their waiting journeys.
3. Waiting shuts up the ego and allows us to look outside ourselves
Years ago I went to see a reimagining of the play ‘Waiting for Godot’. With no previous understanding of the play, I was infuriated to get to the end of the storyline and find that the main character never shows up. This feeling is meant to be evoked, but on reflection, it says a lot about the frustration that comes with placing an expectation on things that were never promised. Ultimately, wanting to control external outcomes that are not ours to control is ego-driven, and when we learn to wait we learn to let go. If you are waiting for something too closely you are suffering.
4. Waiting makes us enjoy the highs of life more
I have nothing profound to say on this apart from how awful would it be for so many romantic songs we know of that speak about “waiting a lifetime” to meet someone, to be changed into “I waited five minutes”? There’s no timeline on love, but I think there is something to be said about the beauty of endurance.
Befriending the art of waiting allows us to grow because change is not viewed in fear. We understand that we cannot control events but we can control our responses to it. Adversity won’t be going away any time soon as it is part of the human condition, so learning patience and the art of waiting in 2020 and well into 2021 gives you the mastery to handle any situation with grace and poise. I acknowledge the limits of my understanding of each of the faith traditions I have mentioned and would welcome feedback on it. In the meantime, I am enjoying the waiting process of growing in more curiosity about the world, faith and what it means to let life unfold.
I recognise that this is not a comprehensive list of all world religions, nor is it intended to be an account of academic accuracy about the history of each religion. It is intended to be a personal reflection on the theme of waiting. I am always open to feedback and further conversation on the theological understandings of what has been included in this article.
Thanks for visiting the Riah Writes creative writing blog. Riah is a creative writing blogger/poetry blogger interested in wellness, society, social justice rights issues and the Arts. Subscribe to the blog by clicking the Subscribe button below. Follow on Instagram to stay updated on daily content and continue the conversation.