"We do it in the crib, at the airport, at the graduation ceremony, in hospice. At every stage of life, and in umpteen circumstances, we find ourselves waiting. Waiting is common to all ethnicities, all social and economic conditions. Even in our hyper-efficient age, when we are taught that every moment should be filled with the productivity of doing, we wait. At every turn, the flow of our lives is interrupted by forces outside our control. But these periods of suspended time are far from empty; what happens within them reveals and shapes us. Waiting may feel like pain or pleasure, may bring us agonizing apprehension or joyful expectancy or both. It may last for a brief but intense moment, or stretch out over lifetimes. We may wait alone, or collectively. In some languages, the word for waiting is also the word for hope.”
Rona Altrows & Julie Sedivy, Waiting: An Anthology of Essays, 2018
I am a middle child…
I have never been comfortable waiting…
It’s the stillness, I think
Oh…and the silence
To wait, one needs to make peace with stillness and silence.
And to do so demands that we learn to recognize the movement in the stillness and the wise words and sounds that are offered from within the silence.
I recently found myself as client in a coaching conversation, sharing the sensation of feeling stuck in the middle…having put into place all kinds of decisions and actions in order to propel me forward to a future I imagined, longed for and felt ready to begin…and yet, I was struggling. Struggling with my own lack of patience. The future wasn’t coming fast enough! What I wished for, I couldn’t make happen on my schedule, according to my desired timeline. It all left me feeling unsettled...and a bit grumpy.
My mother loves to tell the story of the boy who ate every lunch with one foot tucked under the other leg, in order that he (I) might be able to bolt back to the playground the instant the meal was declared over. The punch line of her story was that every lunch ended with spilled milk from the glass knocked over by my hasty exit.
As I explored this feeling of being held back, the image that dropped in was that of being stuck in a waiting room … a space between. Not necessarily a place we find much comfort being ‘left’ in.
After all, what is a waiting room? Think of your doctor’s office (if you choose your dentist, add an aquarium). Waiting rooms always seem to me to be blandly neutral…perhaps to avoid heightening the anxiety of those waiting. Music plays just out of earshot (in stark contrast to the ‘hold’ recording that played when you called in to make the appointment to come and wait. The television in my own clinic rarely plays anything but the slow motion imagery that appears in screen saver mode, and although remarkably vivid, never seems quite real. The spaces in-between, born of the imaginations of artists fare no better. Jean Paul Sartre’s classic waiting room turned out to be a metaphoric holding tank for the hell that ‘is other people’; one without exit. Finding themselves in the ‘blandly neutral’ landscape of Samuel Beckett’s imagining, Didi and Gogo, can neither do do, nor go go anywhere! Act 1 closes word for word as Act 2 will. (and then Act 1 the next night, followed by Act 2…and so on…)
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
(They do not move.)
(Waiting for Godot, S. Beckett)
Let’s be honest. We only ever find ourselves in waiting rooms with one objective … to get beyond and into the next room where the action will happen…the conversation leading to clarity of what’s next. The deal, the diagnosis or the determination of what is to be done...“in the room where it happens!” But until we are in that other room, we are left waiting and for me at least, it has always felt like in this room, nothing happens.
Back in the coaching conversation, the coach invited me to explore this feeling of waiting…of my relationship with impatience. She asked me what one step I might take to get myself closer to the future I envisioned. She asked me what was most important for me to do in order to feel successful or a sense of accomplishment. She asked me what might this process and my being in this space of waiting, be trying to teach me.
And then, when she must have sensed my insistence on remaining stuck in the middle, she asked me one more question: If there was an arrow, in this waiting room you find yourself in, what would that arrow be pointing you towards? This one stopped me, as the best of questions always do; especially those that are wrapped in metaphor. I couldn’t find a quick response. I took a breath and ironically, waited. As I searched for the arrow, all I could see was myself. In my visual representation of the room, it dawned on me that I was standing…who stands in a waiting room? So I imagined myself sitting down before resuming my search for the arrow meant to give me direction. This simple act slowed me down and released some of my tension. As the lens of my imagination sharpened, I saw that I had some semblance of control. To begin, I might choose a more comfortable chair for this room; more comfortable than any one had considered important in any actual waiting room. A comfortable chair in an uncomfortable room in a room of unknowing, lessoned the discomfort. Another breath and again I looked to the arrow for direction.
This shift had begun with one of those simple coaching questions, that resulted in a physical and emotional alteration…my shoulders dropped back, my jaw loosened and in doing so, yet another breath dropped in slowly. My eyes now focused on that middle distance where new thoughts are born; a liminal waiting room. I realized that in my need to always be in motion, I had failed to be present to what was here to awaiting discovery…here, before my name was called to move on to the next…here where the arrow was in fact, pointing at me. This was the clarity and as so often happens in great conversations, it was offered up with no strings attached.
It has left me wondering in this moment, and across the world, how many of us are feeling stuck in the middle? Whether our global reality has led to deep personal loss and increased anxiety or provided space for new energy to emerge from a place of reflection, re-connection and re-direction, is there anyone not feeling done with the waiting?! How might we be allowing our feelings of impatience or frustration to blind us to what we are intended to deepen in our understanding; an act, which may only ever occur here in this place of between what we know and what we are learning. How might we be sure to stay alert for the arrows that are pointing us towards something much more important and deeply instructive…in this waiting space? What are we being invited to learn?
For years, I introduced theatre students to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic as “the play where nothing happens…twice.” And now I find myself questioning that. How might our relationship with waiting change if we see in Beckett’s clowns a deep wisdom? What if Godot is their arrow? What if, in their saying ‘yes, let’s go’, and then in their choosing not to move, we see their wisdom in the waiting? What are we waiting to discover when we find and follow the direction of our arrows?
We respectfully acknowledge the Coast Salish People on whose traditional unceded territory we live, work and play and the Snaw-Na-Was and Qualicum people whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day. We honour the long history of the Indigenous peoples of this land reaching beyond colonization. We are grateful for the opportunity to share, listen, learn and create on this territory.