Musings: Waiting

Waiting

If you want to know what it means to wait, talk to an insomniac.  They’re experts on the subject.

They’ve mapped the trajectory of the sun creeping up the curtains.  They’ve watched it flood over that one crack in the wall, a timeless marker, signaling they’re free to get out of bed now.  They take comfort in the sun’s power to liberate them from the pretense of sleep.  It means they can finally get on with their day–a day that secretly started hours ago.

If you want to know the discomfort of waiting, talk to an insomniac.

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The discomfort of waiting hits our bodies with the utterance of one word: Helplessness.

Think, for a moment, about how you hate being stuck in the slow lane at the grocery store.  Why?  You can’t do anything about it.  You have no control over the pace.  You stand there all jittery with impatience, flipping through a magazine to distract yourself from what you can’t change, from the way your plans are being disrupted in real time by the treachery of an over-populated line.

Most of us are really bad at waiting, because most of us hate feeling helpless.  Okay, so “most of us” is an understatement.

Even when we’ve decided something’s worth waiting for, it’s still uncomfortable.  While we’re waiting we summon a million anxious thoughts.  We mull over the “what ifs” and play out a variety of catastrophic scenarios, often ending with death, or destruction, or man-eating alligators.

As if helplessness isn’t enough, we feel something else that’s equally dreadful: we feel unresolved.  Maybe you’re waiting for THE phone call, or to find out if your loved one made it home safely; maybe you’re anxious for those MRI results, or maybe you need your house to sell, yesterday.  What marks the capstone events that follow these waiting periods is resolution.  Our humanity is crazy in love with resolution.  Only we want good resolution, of course.

But if we live for resolution, we disrespect all the moments in between.

I’ve learned far more from waiting than doing.  But that was only when I chose to view waiting as a discipline.  A discipline is a process of cultivating self-control and focused attention around a particular theme.  A discipline has intrinsic value when it moves us towards a meaningful goal.

When we dig in, we discover a savory truth.  The truth is we’re always waiting.  We’re always anticipating and dreading something.  Embrace it.  Waiting is omnipresent.

Pregnancy is a laborious act of waiting.  But those nine months are as necessary for mom as they are for baby.  If a woman denies she’s pregnant for the first eight months, she’ll panic at the end.  Overwhelmed by the unfinished work of the pregnancy, she can’t appreciate the miraculous outcome.  And after her baby is born she’ll be confronted with a whole new and indescribably transcendent experience of waiting.  If she tries to avoid that, she’ll miss the miracles that continue to trail behind.

We dislike waiting because we feel helpless to change what’s unresolved and we’re crazy about resolution.  The answer is to embrace discipline rather than avoidance.  If we’re always waiting, we might as well honor what we’re waiting for by anticipating it with forethought and appreciation.  When we do that, we no longer feel so helpless.  When we honor the wait, resolution does eventually come and in delightfully unexpected ways.

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Even the whitewashed photograph waits.  The sun is relegated to the background, hugging a corner of the frame, poised to illuminate brick and mortar.  The bikes are idly resting on the post, an homage to the arrested development of their octagonal friend.  Evans’ sign waits to be either celebrated or torn down; the people will decide the fate of his slogan in hashtags.  Even the parking sign is waiting for a passerby to adjust it back to symmetry.

Nature waits.  Architecture waits.  People wait.

 

Is Happiness the Key to a Great Life?

I received an e-mail from a dear friend this week with this quote attached: “The objects of the present life fill the human eye with a false magnification because of their immediacy.”  The author is William Wilberforce, a man from a previous time who I deeply admire.

As a member of the British parliament, Wilberforce was integral to the abolition of slavery in the British empire.  His foundational traits of persistence, conviction, and passion demanded that he continue to fight the gross injustice of slavery, in spite of equally persistent opposition.  His ability to see beyond the immediate trappings of desire to the bigger picture led to a foundational shift in the British empire.

The desire to be happy is one that most of us have espoused at some point.  How many times have you heard yourself, or someone else, saying, “I just want to be happy.”?  Happiness, in our culture, is often preached as the best pathway to well-being.  Wilberforce’s quote directly addresses that ideal because happiness often becomes a magnified object, distorting our vision of life, and filling our minds and hearts with the immediacy of our desires.  It’s difficult when we become enamored by an ideal that can’t be translated into reality, a desire that can’t be fulfilled in a grounded, realistic way.

The problem with putting all of our stakes in being happy is that happiness is an emotion, and emotions are fleeting; by their very nature they fluctuate, and because of this, valuing them as the goal of self-actualization predicates failure.  When we hope that the elusive goal of happiness will mean the dissolution of our obstacles, resolution of our relational hurts, and the creation of a sense of peace and security, we set ourselves up to be disappointed.

It can be painful to deconstruct the perspective that happiness is not an achievable goal.  However, the disappointment becomes more profound when we consistently experience the inability to reach that goal, and become demoralized.  If you’re looking for an alternative goal, a paradigmatic shift in thinking, may I suggest contentment.

Happiness is the shiny, new toy that quickly loses its brilliance; contentment is the treasured keepsake, unassuming, but unequivocally meaningful.  To operationally define contentment, let’s say that it is a decision we stick with in spite of our emotions.  To be content is to accept and value what we do have, whether we feel good or not.  It’s the gratitude of realistic understanding, coupled with the willingness to continue growing.

Contentment requires the ability to see the big picture and the desire to look beyond instant gratification and value what is and what can be.  Contentment takes significant courage.  Often we become overwhelmed by the fluctuating emotions that seem to indicate a lack of progress.  To be content requires the perspective to look beyond the gray-tinged emotions resolute not to allow those emotions to shape our reality.  Our progress is no more defined by what we feel than our worth is defined by our appearance.  Oftentimes, emotional tension is a marker of progress, not regression.  And that reality doesn’t fit with the elusive goal of happiness.

What would it mean for you to value your current life and situation?  How would your perspective change if you stopped aspiring to be happy?  What does it look like for you, personally, to be content?

This week, I’m deeply grateful for many things.  I had a perspective-altering experience that reminded me that in spite of my emotions, I can value life, I can appreciate the corner of the world that I’ve been tucked into, and I can desire to see that world shaped and influenced into something more unique and inviting.  My hope for you is that you encounter similar experiences that shape your view of life beyond your emotions.  Tucked into your corner, who could you be if you saw beyond the magnification of the pretty, shiny things to the more beautiful, layered substance of life?