Wood's Homes Blog

The waiting game: When patience is wearing thin – let’s talk about the art of waiting

November 10, 2020
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
The waiting game: When patience is wearing thin – let’s talk about the art of waiting

 When patience is wearing thin, let’s talk about the art of waiting.

The old adage, ‘good things come to those who wait’ is likely getting very old to many of us right now. Tom Petty once crooned that “the waiting was the hardest part”, Dr. Seuss wrote about The Waiting Place, where “everyone is just waiting” and poet Mary Oliver described “the dull hangover of waiting,” which I feel more aligned with as we enter yet another month of waiting for the pandemic to end. 

What does waiting mean to you?

I recently listened to a podcast with Dr. Peter Toohey from the University of Calgary. The introduction says: Waiting is a major part of everyone's daily lives, whether we like it or not. It can be a time of intense anticipation, or it can be excruciating and tedious. But as the world gets faster and our lives get busier, we have less patience for waiting. That's not necessarily a good thing.

Dr. Toohey begins by bringing our attention to all the time we spend waiting for things. He actually suggests we start to add it up to fully understand just how much of our lives is spent waiting. I started thinking of all the things we wait for: buses, elevators, arrivals and departures, the light to change, the coffee to brew, the day to begin. A day, it turns out, that will be full of more waiting – waiting for things to begin, and waiting for things to end – waiting for something to change, to give, to bend.  And what seems universal right now is that we are all waiting for this pandemic to be over. What Dr. Toohey helped me think differently about, however, was that our experiences of waiting are very much contextual – it depends on what we are waiting for. He suggests there are generally two outcomes, bonding or learning. But whatever the outcome, waiting, as a form of anticipation, ultimately results in some sense of reward; your loved one to arrive, pain to end, some kind of learning to take place. 

At one point he described waiting as a means of reinforcing the strength of a relationship, and of a community, and it made me wonder, is it possible that we will be stronger as a community when this pandemic is over? It certainly seems like we will have learned so much more about ourselves, and what really matters. Waiting, Dr. Toohey explains, can become a tool for learning, as long as we are conscious of it. And we are very conscious right now about all the things we are waiting for.

He talked about all the things we do that help us pass the time of waiting, we use our phones to entertain ourselves and sometimes to pass the time while we are waiting. We read (papers, books, advertisements at bus or train stations, watch billboards go by), we make phone calls, we make lists, we write notes to ourselves or to others as we play the waiting game. Sometimes we use waiting time more productively, we plan, we dream. In this way Dr. Toohey suggests that waiting is not always awful, and that there might just be an art to boredom.  Being able to relax about waiting might be the key to managing those feelings that waiting brings up (like anxiety or sadness) better. It makes me think of those early childhood studies about delayed gratification and how that is a predictor of future happiness and well-being. Can we teach our kids how to wait better?  More importantly, can we teach ourselves? And what does that really look like?

There has been a lot of talk about both child and adult mental health during this difficult time. And we are seeing increased rates of anxiety and depression (Wood’s Homes is certainly seeing an increase in calls for help). All likely related to the sense of the unknown. Perhaps it’s harder to wait when you aren’t sure what the outcome of that waiting will be. When Dr. Toohey spoke about the worst kind of waiting being for those who are locked in (referring to hospital stays or institutionalization for example) it struck me that this is what is making this pandemic so much worse than regular waiting. It made me think about my grandfather who, among countless others, spent the last months of his life waiting for visitors who could not arrive. Upon his death, I comforted myself with a line from a poem on death, designed to soothe the pain of loss with the words, “I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.” Here is the link.

After all this waiting, could all eventually be well again? Dr. Toohey says that the research on waiting illustrates that part of our nature of being human means we can adapt our ability to wait based on our situations and we are capable of finding silver linings. Which leaves me thinking about all the things we could try to do with all this extra waiting. All the things that we can do to help us wait a little longer, and a little better. Maybe reading Dr. Toohey’s new book will not just pass the time but also teach us how to get better at waiting, while also still living to the best of our abilities. Maybe writing a letter to ourselves or someone else, make a list of what we are waiting for and how we will survive this incredible test of patience and fortitude. The pandemic has become all about waiting, somedays it feels like we are all waiting for something or someone, but as David Whyte so beautifully describes in the last lines of his poem below, you aren’t alone, the world is waiting with you - but also for you. 

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

So, what are you waiting for?