The Absurdity Of Waiting
July 29, 2013
Ursula and I load our cart each week with DVDs, games, and magazines. Each week we roam the patient wards and the waiting areas of the cancer hospital offering a chat, a sympathetic ear and the contents of our cart. We are peddlers of distraction for people burdened by waiting. Mrs. B. might be waiting for her procedure. Mr. C. might be waiting for the results. Some wait for loved ones to feel better, while others await their own death.
No one likes waiting. They all wear that fixed-upon-nothing stare. I find it curious that no matter how educated or professional, waiting people pick out the tabloid gossip rags most often from our trolley. It makes sense when you think about it. These people are waiting for something significant to happen; some turn of fate they can grip their teeth into. Gossip magazines are filled with the highlights of other people’s significant events (even if they be untrue).
When I finish my shift I recognize that same foggy, unfocussed look on the people in the streets and in the subways. The world is like this huge airport lounge, people frantically waiting to get somewhere: waiting for one thing to end, waiting to finish another, waiting for others to do whatever thing for them. Most office workers at day’s end are tired of work, not with work(unlike labourers). I wonder, are we really tired because of waiting for something meaningful to happen?
Looking back at my own life also, I think it is ironic that even though we hate waiting but we spend most of our lives doing exactly that. In youth we can’t wait to grow up, we dream of the day our perfect mate might turn up, in working life we count the months and years to retirement. Once in a while there are significant moments where we are wholly engaged, fully living, the rest of the time, it seems, is about waiting.
And just like the patients at the hospital, we fill that wait with distractions. We learn hobbies, we gossip, we surf the net, we watch TV, etc.. “What do you do in your spare time?” people ask. Don’t they really mean: how do you occupy yourself while you are waiting for life to happen?
The bride at the wedding reception I attended gave a moving speech and something she said has stayed with me. She described the moment after her wedding as the most perfect moment of her life. A moment she had dreamt of all of her life, she said. And she wished she could somehow live in that moment forever. That, seemed to me, summed up nicely the tragedy of our lives. We desire, we dream of the perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect people saying and doing the most perfect things. But aren’t our desires, our dreams, our ambitions all a form of waiting? When you think about it, desires and ambitions are postponements of happiness. When I get this, or when she goes, then I will be more happy than now. We set conditions for happiness. We put up limits. Then we wait for those conditions to be met, putting our happiness on hold while we wait. Why do we do that to ourselves?
Of course a few times in our lives we get to experience a moment as perfect as the one we had imagined. All limitations and conditions satisfied. Abraham Maslow called these Peak Experiences.
Peak experiences leave a person joyous, alive, whole, fulfilled and integrated. They can occur through art, spiritual events, or those rare moments when life aligns itself in a perfectly desirable way. As it did for that young bride on her wedding day.
In my work with the geriatrics I have come to realize that Peak Experiences are not always conducive, and sometimes they are not even desired. Yet they leave that same indelible mark upon the individual as the experiences of rapture. I believe I will always remember Luka, aged ninety-four and a half (he insisted on adding the half). He loves to speak of his experiences during the Second World War when he was captured by the Germans and held at a POW camp in the Ukraine. He and his colleagues escaped after a visitor smuggled in wire-cutters by baking them inside a cake (seriously, it actually worked). Luka then hid from the Germans under their very noses by escaping into Berlin. He tells his story with such animation, such detail, one feels one is experiencing a big budget Hollywood movie. He does not talk about his life before or since much, there is little doubt to me that those years of living on the edge of danger were Peak Experiences for him. He was alert, he was wholly present in the here and now. He was fully alive.
Instead of waiting, one has to wonder if there is a way to rewire the brain to be always alive to the moment? To be truly awake and alert and enjoying all the small, non-events that make up most of daily living? I believe it can be done right now, right here, through awareness and attention. I have made it a hobby to notice quiet moments of perfection within mundane, routine events. In my experience, to wholly and truly realize the absurdity of waiting is to slowly let it go.