The Virtue of Waiting

Gail Sheehy, journalist and author, once wrote, “Growth demands a temporary surrender of security,” and waiting perhaps requires the greatest surrender. Because, in waiting, we face the truth that we are not in control.

And we associate this, in the western world, with passivity.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We wait to be called after the job interview. We wait for our children to be born. And we wait for loved ones to die. Few experiences offer so honest a glimpse of our true position in life. The totality of all our intellect and education, our ambitions and achievements can sometimes still be not enough, count—in fact—for nothing at all as we end up alongside all the other lives around us, benched and waiting to be called.

Two women on the bus the other day were talking about the grace of waiting. One had just recovered from a long illness. She looked to be in her mid-forties, and her dark hair frizzed from the downpour that had caught all of us at our stops, now drying where the windows steamed with our breaths and rain evaporated off our jackets.

“I think I finally got it now,” she was saying as I climbed into the seat behind them. “Took me a while, but I’ve finally learned that sometimes you just got to wait. And things turn out okay.”

And she explained how, while she’d been laid up at home, the world had gone on without her. All her troubles continuing outside her door, her friends’ lives unfolding, the dramas at work playing out—and that, to her surprise, this had turned out to be a good thing. While she waited, while she was unable to do anything at all, certain things resolved themselves. Her life moved along, even as it seemed to stand still, and now, as she picked up the threads again, she found things better off than where she’d left them.

“Sometimes,” she said, “you got to do nothing at all. Just wait. And things have a way of taking care of themselves.”

I got off the bus, feeling like I had been to church and been blessed. How true, I thought. How right that is. And I watched the businessmen hurrying along Third Avenue downtown in their double-breasted wool coats, the white collars of their pressed shirts stiff against the throat, the weight heavy in the heels and pitched forward. How sure they were that they knew where they were going and what they had to do once they got there.

But that is just so much maya. Hinduism has taught, for thousands of years, that life unfolds in its own way, in its own seasons, and that to find your place in this unfolding and live in accordance with it—to follow your dharma—is to achieve wisdom. The historical ideal in the west that the individual can strive against nature and win is an illusion, and a destructive one. Chinese philosophy, especially Taoism, also argues for submission to The Way–the natural course of things–as the path to wisdom.

Regardless of how a culture approaches it, waiting is fundamental to the human experience. But Americans, who like to take a stand on everything as a basic principle, even take a stand on waiting. Economists talk of economic cycles, yet no one quite seems to understand what a cycle is—or at least, they insist, we should be able to speed it up, slow it down, avert it altogether if we just come up with the right strategy. Strategies are what we like, and acceptance and submission are not strategic. We induce labor. At ever increasing rates, we slice women open if their children aren’t getting born quickly or conveniently enough. We have chemicals to make livestock mature faster, DVDs that we hope will make our children brighter sooner, and programs to help the already bright graduate even earlier, attain that degree quicker. There is nothing, we hope, that can’t be sped up.

Of course waiting and submission can be taken too far as well. The philosophy of “send your bread out upon the water, and it will come back buttered” is devastating financial advice, as the life of Bronson Alcott, the itinerant philosopher-father of author Louisa May Alcott, attests. But as a way to face the vagaries of our days, there is no alternative.

To learn to wait–and to know when to–is a discipline that I expect will take a lifetime. Both the creative process and life itself often require that I simply wait.

And as I wait, I practice the virtue of reconciling the outer stillness with the inner dynamism, a tandem that defines so much of life. It is a delicate balance, and most of the time I fail. But when, for a moment, I succeed, I surrender to life—when I recognize that I must wait and can do so with equanimity, I find peace.

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