If your computer is like mine one of the first messages that pops up on the screen when you try to get started, is “Please Wait.” This is the mantra of the modern age. My old typewriter never told me to wait. But if we are foolish enough to use the automated checkout at the supermarket we rarely get far with our groceries before being stopped by the message: “Please wait, help is on the way.” Oh no it’s not. The help is out to lunch. Please wait.
It is a poignant reminder that, while we imagine we are living in the fast-moving world of the twenty-first century, there is nothing fast about it. We have been trained and bullied into waiting for almost everything. If you make the mistake of traveling during the summer you will probably waste most of your vacation time waiting at airports: waiting to check in, waiting for security, waiting for your flight, waiting for your in-flight meal, and, at the other end, waiting to disembark, waiting at passport and customs barriers, and waiting for your bags to arrive on the carousel, if they ever do. Standing with an impatient crowd at JFK recently I calculated that, during my longish lifetime, I have, at minimum, spent the equivalent of five days and nights waiting at baggage carousels
Waiting is one of those universal human afflictions that we rarely think about. Only the very rich never have to wait, while the rest of us spend uncounted hours on checkout lines, in doctors’ offices, at the DMV, or on hold for some more-or-less imaginary “customer service representative.” We do this passively, with resignation. There’s rarely a rebellion, although perhaps there should be. Waiting is time lost forever, and we never get a payback or a refund, or even an insincere apology.
In some ways, technology has reduced waiting time. We used to wait for the mail, but now we have instant electronic communication. We used to wait for packages, but now Amazon delivers them, it seems, even before they were ordered. The microwave and fast food industries have reduced the time between the desire to eat and eating virtually to zero. But for most things in life we have to curb our impatience, and please wait.
There are two kinds of waiting: passive and active. The passive kind is forced on us by circumstances and is always for the convenience of other people or machines. Active waiting is something we choose to do. There are those who make a profession out of it: security guards or tree farmers for example, who have nothing to do but wait. Others wait for pleasure, like fishermen who sit on riverbanks for hours at a time in a state of Zen like tranquility.
Some people make an entire lifestyle out of waiting as if the present moment was a kind of prelude or prequel to some anticipated big moment in the future. Samuel Becket’s play “Waiting for Godot” is the classic drama of hopeful waiting. The two tramps on stage are waiting for someone or something that will make everything right for them. They discuss their situation endlessly, and even contemplate hanging themselves, but they can’t manage even that. The tramps put a kind of genius into their waiting and it’s clear at the end of the play that they can’t stop. Waiting is what makes their lives worth living. It gives them something to do when they have nothing to do. They have learned resignation, they have learned patience. We should all be so lucky.