What Are You Waiting For?

As I was sitting here thinking about what to write about, I was waiting for the right topic to come to mind. That got me thinking about waiting. We spend a lot of our lives waiting for various events to happen. In the morning, we might wait for someone to get out of the bathroom or out of our way in the kitchen (stay out of my way when I’m making breakfast!). When traveling from place to place, we wait at stop signs (some of us more so than others), intersections, and pedestrian crossings. We wait to merge onto the freeway. We wait for the bus, the train, and for the traffic to clear. At mealtimes, we wait for food to be prepared or served, or for food we’re cooking to be done. We might wait for someone to finish talking so that we can say something, or for someone to finish talking so we can go away or do something else. We wait for our computer to boot up, for our email program to display new mail, for webpages to load, for people to get back to us, and so on. We do an awful lot of waiting. Let’s say, as a rough estimate, that we spend approximately 4 of our waking hours waiting for various events to occur (if we were to add up all the small instances of waiting throughout the day). Four hours is perhaps 25% of our waking hours. This is a tremendous amount of time: over 60 days of waiting per year, or approximately 4,100 days of waiting from our teenaged years until we’re eighty (I haven’t included childhood waiting, as I believe the waiting of children is an entirely different phenomenon that warrants its own category, from my experience as a parent). It seems to me that this behaviour of waiting deserves serious consideration given how much of our lives we spend on it. So, what are we spending all of this time doing? What are we actually doing when we’re waiting?

 If you are a keen observer of human behaviour, you might notice some trends and patterns that seem to occur when people are waiting. Watch people at the bus stop, and see what they’re doing. Observe the behaviour of people in the waiting area of a restaurant, while you smugly enjoy your meal, knowing that your waiting (at least the initial waiting for a table) is over. What are they actually doing? These days, many of them are doing other things, such as holding (i.e., caressing and cradling lovingly) and looking at their smartphones, talking to other people (or sometimes to themselves), reading something (this is rare, unless the text their reading is on an electronic device), looking at something (such as looking in a purse, looking at other people or at events occurring around them), and so on. Based on my observations at least, waiting seems to be a fairly active activity. People are usually doing something while they’re waiting. It’s considerably less common to observe someone standing there, slack jawed with a bovine stare than it is to observe someone doing one of the activities I’ve just listed. But, it does happen. And, even the slack jawed bovine stare is an activity of sorts – perhaps one that we could stand to engage in more often. The waiting behaviour of people stuck in traffic is a little different but similarly involves some kind of activity, whether this includes scowling, gesturing, texting, looking around, changing the radio channel, talking to others, darting through the traffic to find a way out, and so on. The waiting behaviour of those in a medical office awaiting a colonoscopy might also look a little different but is likely to involve some kind of activity. In other words, whether we’re waiting or not, we’re alive and doing something while we wait.

 What is the experience of waiting like? How do we transform that experience into something meaningful so that we’re not simply wasting a good proportion of our lives? Wait until next week for more on this topic. – Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.