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  • Writer's pictureMac Ling

Waiting & Activity

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

Can we view waiting as something other than an obstacle or a nuisance?

"It's not the road

It's not the miles

Or being alone

That tells my heart

She should be aching

The danger's in

The danger's in

The danger's in the waiting..."

— Aron Wright, "Song for the Waiting" lyrics


What are you waiting for?

Two men stand under a tree, conversing, waiting for an elusive figure named Godot; the pair does this for two acts (over an indeterminate number of months or years), and then the play is over. So what has been accomplished? And what might we call the plot of this play, seeing that Godot--a man whose arrival is the stated "goal" of the play--never seems to materialize? The interpretations of Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot are many, spanning the philosophical and the logical and even the political. An important germ of its meaning, however, is revealed in the title: This is a play about waiting. But then, aren't our lives characterized primarily by waiting, too? If we look at the plot of Waiting for Godot, much else also seems to happen--through the men's conversations, we are taken through their humor, their conflicts, their merriment, their ribaldry, their pasts and their imagined futures. If we measure this plot through the lens of Godot's arrival, very little happens. If we measure it by a lens that continues to evolve and accept as real and important all that occurs, this play is teeming with the stuff we might call life. That is, it does not feel like an "in-between"; we leave the theater with the sense that we have been through something. What I propose for this month is a modified prescription for the way we delineate the "productive" and "unproductive" parts of our lives. Certainly, there is a value of measurement to goals and important ways to conceptualize "waiting." Likely, one would not very well wait in line to watch a movie, only to leave the line just as one is about to enter the theater. This waiting is seemingly made productive by its result. On the other hand, why come to the theater on time and sit through the previews, knowing full well that you will have to wait for the main feature to begin? And yet, many (though not all) do opt to arrive to watch the previews; therefore, they either do not consider the previews "waiting" or find this waiting to be desirable and not wasteful. Anticipating this (or engineering it), most movie theaters build these previews into their "start time." On the other hand, would you go to a movie just to watch the previews and leave before the main feature? Again, you might, but it is perhaps less likely; if you did, however, would the previews be classified as "waiting"? Almost certainly not. As we can see, this line of questioning can be extended ceaselessly, and we still might not have an absolute answer as to what constitutes "waiting" as opposed to "non-waiting." Just as we can make our own decisions about when to show up to the theater (regardless of external designations of start-time and waiting-time), we can make decisions about how to interpret what is "life" and what is "waiting for life." For instance, consider that looking for a relationship is just as much a part of life as finding one; waiting for a promotion might be just as vibrant and busy and meaningful as actually getting one. Otherwise, our lives would amount to those few moments that we actually achieve our goals—they would be rather short in duration and quite limited, by this measure.

There is, of course, a darker side to waiting--the side that results from logistical realities and power dynamics we cannot control. Waiting is often imposed upon us, and often in ways that it sometimes shouldn't be: Waiting for equality, waiting for justice, waiting for resources to tend to our health. As Sarah Sharma writes in In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (2014), the ability to control wait times is in the hands of the powerful. Thus, much can be diagnosed about the values and hierarchies of society based on the process by which wait times are allocated. As a global society, I believe we can benefit from integrating a consciousness of waiting into our framework of general empathy. Perhaps when we begin to treat our own waiting time as precious--in fact, as the stuff of life itself--we will consider the value and the quality of the waiting time to which we are subjecting others.



We can take ownership of daily, unavoidable wait times by considering their potential. So focused on what we define as efficiency and productivity, we can be quick to deem time on the road or waiting in line at the cash register as "wasted" time--time that would be better spent shortened. Instead, this month, I suggest you try to reclaim these moments by thinking of them as opportunities: "gifted" time that belongs to nobody else but you and is free of expectation. In these daily moments, there is nothing we "should" be doing, and there is a freedom to that.

Your task: Find an activity that you have always "meant" to do but haven't yet been able to carve out time for. Then, dedicate your waiting time to this activity for a month and see whether it enriches your life.

The activity has to be versatile. We reach for our phones because it is easy, it is quiet, and so it can be done almost anywhere without too much disruption to our surroundings and without too much equipment. So, something like “learning how to play soccer” would not be a great waiting activity. Learning a language or delving deep into a book you thought you’d never have time to read might be. Mental games that can be done without any equipment at all might be a good bet. Singing, probably not…

It should feel like a “treat.” It has to be something that you will not do at another time, so that it will truly seem like a treat when you get the opportunity. You learn your flight is delayed, and you think “Great! More time for Activity X…” Whether your flight leaves on time or not, it’s a win-win. While watching TV might be fun, is that something you would not normally do? Later, will you consider it a real boon that your flight was delayed because you got to watch that show, or was it simply a way to pass the time until you got what you really wanted?

The activity should have both continuity and natural, digestible stopping points. If you have a 5-minute wait time, it is unlikely you would get started on a whole new activity that might take 10 minutes. If you don’t know whether your wait time is 5-minutes or 50 minutes, the calculation of whether you should even bother to start the activity becomes far more complex. This makes it more likely that you'll forgo the activity entirely--that is "wait" for a better time for it--and squander this wait time unintentionally scrolling through feeds on your phone. Your chosen wait-time activity should be something you can sink into or step out of, both mentally and physically, at a moment’s notice. For instance, if you are using a language-learning app, will you lose your progress if you don’t complete the entire lesson in that moment? If you get too deep into the novel, will you have trouble engaging in the next activity when you actually arrive? These considerations will differ from person to person, but they are essential to iron out. Finally, it is less daunting to continue an activity than to start a new one; thus, it is best to leave your wait activity in the “middle” so you can pick up right where you left off (and, in the best case, so that you have something to "look forward to" in your next wait!). For this reason, choosing an activity that offers some continuity is best.



In many instances, we are all too well aware that we are doing something called "waiting"--we are waiting in line to check out groceries, waiting for our turn for a vaccine, waiting for some momentous life goal to finally be realized. In all of these cases, we are promised a certain "reward"--that is, something we have decided that we want--when the period of waiting is complete. Studies show that we tend to measure waiting by how much time we have left to wait. The invention of the computer progress bar and, later, the spinning progress icon, both reveal how we potentially conceptualize waiting. In his TedTalk "How the Progress Bar Keeps You Sane," Daniel Engber, explains a 1985 (early in the age of computers) study and then posits something we have learned since then: The key is not only that people know how much of the task remains or merely that it is indeed in progress. What is the most psychologically tantalizing, Engber explains, is not being able to calculate exactly how much time is left. There is an ebb and flow of hope and excitement depending on when the icon spins faster or slower. Unlike a progress bar, an icon spinning at changing speeds does not help us get a handle on how much waiting time is left--we have no idea what will happen from one moment to the next. "Waiting" now has a narrative arc and is, in itself, entertaining. This makes the user psychologically less irritated, Engber suggests... even though the spinning icon makes the task neither more efficient nor more productive. So perhaps the problem is that we find waiting boring or lacking in value, not that we actually hate the idea that certain things take time. Studies have shown that people at the end of a line are more likely to hop between lines than those nearer to the front. The majority of the time, this lengthens their wait time instead of shortening it. So why do people still do it, even knowing this might be the case? Perhaps, applying Engber's logic, it is because line-switching makes waiting active. Knowing we are waiting--being told explicitly that waiting is at hand--we want to DO something. When this agency is denied us, we feel frustrated and, at times, (sometimes justifiably) indignant. All of these cases apply to situations in which we are aware we are waiting and conduct ourselves as such. But what about the other situation--when we don't know that we are waiting?

In a famous story from the end of the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson and the Federalists convened the Hartford Convention in America to oppose the fighting with the British. Before the Hartford Convention had concluded their proceedings, however, the Treaty of Ghent, signed in Belgium by U.S. delegates, had already settled the war. The Convention had, effectively, decided on opposition to a war that had already ended! They were in a period of waiting for the news, but they had no idea that they were waiting; they fancied themselves immersed in important action. Like those unfortunate diplomats, we too sometimes don't recognize when we are "waiting." We don't always know when the big events will come. So if we cannot possibly have all of the information to determine what is waiting and what is not, might we perhaps treat every moment like it matters? By keeping all of this in mind, we can begin to think of waiting as more than a merely irritating state. Perhaps "waiting" is just the name we give to undefined moments. Sitting in the waiting room can be called "waiting" if we define it by what we are waiting for; if we define it on its own merits, though, it can be called by whatever thoughts and activities you engage in during the waiting. On the other end of the spectrum, re-conceptualizing waiting can create a sense of urgency and reveal negative situations to be what they are, emphasizing their deleterious effects in the present: "Waiting for justice" becomes plain and absolute "injustice" (defining the situation by what it is, not by what is being waited for). This can spur us to action that can effect real change, when we agree collectively to not accept the wait.


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