Faith Gong: The art of waiting
“I can’t stand it! I just can’t wait any longer!”
I hear these words from my daughters on a daily basis, it seems. Sometimes they’re spoken in frustration, sometimes in excitement. Always, the object of their waiting is something pleasurable, wished-for. It might be a birthday, time with a friend, a destination, or simply dinner. These days, of course, it’s Christmas. The problem is that they’re not there yet; they have to wait.
“It’ll come,” I tell my daughters repeatedly. “Just be patient.”
Right now, we are smack in the middle of Advent. The major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter have built-in waiting times attached to them: Easter comes after 40 days of Lent, and the four Sundays before Christmas Day make up the season of Advent. We celebrate Advent by lighting candles (our church lights one candle for each Sunday, but our family has an Advent wreath with a candle for each of the 24 days prior to Christmas.) We open the doors on Advent calendars (our family prefers the ones with a small piece of fair-trade chocolate for every day of Advent.) We play Christmas carols and decorate the house.
In these modern times, we also spend Advent shopping, addressing Christmas cards, and running around to a dizzying variety of holiday parties and events.
I was surprised this year when I heard an interview with the British poet and priest Malcolm Guite, in which he said that Advent used to be a time of quiet, a time to stay in, a time to be thoughtful. The celebratory part of Christmas would begin on Christmas Eve and last for the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany; Advent was a time to be still and wait.
But we don’t like to wait, especially in our current culture of high-speed internet, movie streaming, and free two-day delivery. The way in which we spend modern Advents is further evidence of our impatience: We distract ourselves from the wait by filling the days with a flurry of activity. How can we be still when there’s so much to buy, do, and bake?
I’m concerned over whether we’re training our children in the art of waiting. In fact, I have a bone to pick with none other than Dr. Seuss. In his book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! – a book that is quoted and gifted at graduations every year, because it’s meant to inspire young people to greatness – Dr. Seuss refers to:
“…a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting….
That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.”
What Dr. Seuss does here is exactly what we do when we fill Advent with shopping and parties: He implies that waiting is bad, and that the goal is to get past it – to reach our destination, be it Christmas Day or the Boom Bands. The wait itself is “useless,” something to be endured with only the end in mind. Waiting, according to Dr. Seuss and our culture, is “not for you!”
But…really? Just the other day, a friend told me how she’s realized that life is a state of perpetual waiting.
“I keep thinking that I’ll get to place where it’ll all be figured out,” she said, “But as soon as one thing gets resolved, there’s just something else to wait for.”
As it happens, I’ve had some experience with waiting lately. This fall, our family adopted our fifth child. “Adopted” is a single past-tense verb that in no way encapsulates the torturous process of waiting involved.
My husband and I first began considering adoption in 2015, but the research, interviews, paperwork, and home study weren’t concluded until August 2018. We then waited a little over a year, until September 2019, before receiving the call about the baby who would become our son. That initial wait was easy compared to the one that followed, because it often felt hopeless: Who would ever choose our family for their child? But the six weeks between that initial phone call and the moment when we first held our son were agonizing, because we had hope – someone had chosen our family --- but we also knew that that hope could be dashed in a thousand different ways at any minute. We had no control over the outcome; all we could do was wait.
As painful as it was, that period of waiting was a season of rich growth for my husband and me, and for our children. We spent a great deal of time together as a family, having fun and strengthening our relationships. We planned tentatively for a new baby while also acknowledging a high degree of uncertainty. And while we chafed at our powerlessness, it forced us to reflect long and hard on why we were choosing to adopt.
During this time, I didn’t read Dr. Seuss to my children; instead, we memorized Emily Dickinson’s lovely waiting poem:
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”
Waiting was a crucial part of the process, and our son entered a better, more prepared family than if someone had dropped a baby on us immediately. Of course, now that we have our son, the waiting hasn’t ended; we’re just waiting for different things.
I want to teach my children that waiting is for us. If we choose to see waiting as an active opportunity for growth as opposed to passive boredom, then “The Waiting Place” isn’t a useless void, but instead becomes life’s training ground.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.