sagaciously

     From the moment we’re born, doesn’t it seem like we spend an eternity waiting?   First, we’re crying for a diaper change or breast milk, and waiting for the good enough Mommy.  Then, gradually, we acquire language and with it the responsibility of learning patience. We try to be increasingly patient with slow moving traffic and with elevators that seem to linger on high floors. How about waiting for our phone calls and emails to be returned, and—of course—for our checks to arrive?  Chill out and be patient, we tell ourselves.  Holding our breaths, we anxiously wait to hear if our kids are accepted into impossibly selective nursery schools, high schools and colleges.  Everyone waits at the doctor’s office, sometimes in several different rooms, before we’re seen. Then we wait again –often in an agony of anxiety—for the results of our medical tests and the eventual, all-important diagnosis.

     What about waiting for lovers to call or (these days) text back?  At some point in our lives, we can’t help but wait for our beloved to pop the question, answer the question, break up or make up.  And let’s not even talk about all the time spent waiting just to meet that special someone, whether by chance, through an introduction or an on-line dating site.

     Our parents have usually taught us an assortment of tired clichés in order to cope with the frustration and anxiety of waiting.  “The best things in life are worth waiting for.”  Hmm, are we sure about that? What if you’re rejected from the college of your choice, or someone else gets the job/promotion? Worse still, what if you find out you have a terminal disease? Clearly, this could be the WORST thing you ever waited to hear (at that particular moment).

     For years I hoped and watched and waited, yearning for Sarah to overcome her developmental disabilities, lose all the autism labels, and catch up to her twin brother.  At some point, I realized that dream would never happen.  Instead I began to hope that Sarah would just keep learning and growing, so that eventually she would progress enough to fulfill her dream of being an independent adult. (She’s not quite there yet, but there’s still plenty of time…)

     Now I wonder: Is receiving bad news better or worse than continuing to wait? At least while you’re waiting, there’s still hope. 

     One of my mom’s favorite platitudes is: “He also serves who stands and waits.”  As a child, I really hated that one (and still do).   What that adage means is that you can’t (or shouldn’t) do anything to influence the outcome of an upsetting situation.  Doing (or saying) nothing is your best bet. (!?) Just when you most want to scream or give advice to your teenager or young adult is probably the moment they are least likely to listen (at least to you).   In fact, if you try to offer parental warnings or wisdom, your offspring might ignore you—or worse—do exactly the opposite. 

     Though counter-intuitive, waiting is sometimes your best or only course of action.  I know, I know, waiting seems like the antithesis of action.  Sometimes waiting feels like a prison of self-imposed inertia which can easily morph into forms of passive aggression.  For example, if I remind my son Max to take out the garbage (his only household chore), he might “forget” or wait until the trash is overflowing with soda cans and water bottles onto the kitchen floor.   If he waits long enough, I might be sufficiently disgusted to take out the garbage myself, thus relieving him of the chore.  However, it’s equally possible that I’ll move the garbage into his bedroom—already a mess anyway—to spur him into action.  Two can play the waiting game.

     As I mentioned at the beginning of my blog, people of all ages wait for things to happen (and not happen) every day.  How many times have you “waited with baited breath” or “waited for the other shoe to drop?” Worst of all is when you have “the sword of Damocles hanging over your head.” Something bad is going to happen, and it’s only a question of time.  Sadly, this is the case for my son.  Every six months, Max must go for a check up on his heart.  After open heart surgery at age three to repair a congenital heart defect, my husband and I were told there would be some leakage over the course of Max’s life, which might eventually require another repair.  Right now, the leakage is holding steady at “mild to moderate.” If it gets any worse, our son will need open heart surgery again. We all try our best not to think about it during the six months between appointments.

     Clearly, waiting is very much on people’s minds.   On Google, there’s a site called “Brainy Quote,” with 26 pages devoted to people’s ruminations on waiting.  In addition, there are 213 quotes by the famous and not-so-famous on another site called “Good Reads.” Here are a few of my favorites:  “‘For a while’ is a phrase whose length can’t be measured.  At least by the person who’s waiting…” by Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun.  The only thing worse than having to wait “for a while” is when someone says “soon” and it turns into “awhile.” How many times have you arrived at a restaurant with a dinner reservation and the maitre’d  assures you that your table will be ready soon, and “soon” turns into 30 minutes?  Usually, the hungrier you are, the longer the wait, right?

     If you’re a baby boomer or even older, perhaps you’ll appreciate what Elizabeth Taylor (a writer, not the actress) said: “It’s very strange that the years teach us patience, that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”  I think maturity improves our ability to wait because experience has taught us that we have no other choice.  Our lives become busier and more complicated as we take on more responsibilities at work and at home.  In addition to being husbands, wives and partners, many of us are parents and grandparents.   For some of us, who have elderly parents, the caretaking roles have reversed.  Our parents have become fragile children who depend on us to different degrees.  In essence, we have become accomplished jugglers.  We have so many balls up in the air that we are often busy rushing to catch one before it falls. The juggling act leaves less time and energy for waiting and worrying impatiently.  Maybe it seems ironic that I find the time to write this blog, but writing is one of the balls I have freely chosen to juggle.

     My favorite quote about waiting comes from Lemony Snicket in The Ersatz Elevator:  “Are you ready?” Klaus asked finally.

                “No” Sunny answered.

                “Me neither,” Violet said, “but if we wait until we’re ready we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.  Let’s go.”

     Some choices are obviously more difficult to make than others.  Sometimes there are reasons to wait for more information before you make a decision. On other occasions waiting is a bad idea. One cliché advises you to “look before you leap.” Another warns that “he who hesitates is lost.”  In today’s gender neutral world, the previous platitude must be amended to “he/she” in order to be politically correct.

     Timing really is everything. Or is it?  If you’re a Taoist, who believes in the concept of wu wei, then you aspire to a state of “non-doing” or “non-action.” Wu wei is a state of being in which our actions are effortlessly aligned with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of nature.  In other words, wu wei means “going with the flow,” awake and calm as we become able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.  A leader who practices wu wei is (supposedly) able to rule in a way that creates happiness and prosperity for all citizens. (Obviously, Taoism has NOT taken root with American politicians).

     Another choice for an aspiring Taoist is to become a hermit and withdraw from society, meditating in caves and wandering through meadows in order to be nourished by the energy of nature. Among Taoists, practicing wu wei is considered to be the highest form of virtue—one that is completely spontaneous and in no way premeditated.  In achieving wu wei, we are in tune with the rhythms inside and outside ourselves and–realizing our place in the universe–“we can offer only thoughts, words and actions that do no harm, that are spontaneously virtuous.” Yeah, right.

     Possibly wu wei works if you live in Nepal or Tibet, but NOT here in the Big Apple. I just looked at my watch, and it’s time for me to leave my apartment/cave. It’s not nice (or virtuous) to keep my friends waiting.

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