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Tallis in Wonderland

On Waiting

Raymond Tallis thinks about queuing and milling about.

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton, On His Blindness

The eponymous hero of T.S. Eliot’s anti-heroic poem Sweeney Agonistes has this to say about human life:

Birth, copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, copulation, and death.

This seems to leave an awful lot out. There is rather more to life than this alphabetically and chronologically ordered trio of biological events; more to our patch of living daylight than the beginning, the end, and a few intervening highlights designed to satisfy life’s longing for more of itself. Tying one’s shoelaces, handing over a heavy object, challenging the Zeitgeist, winding people up, worrying about a cousin’s health, making soup, effing and/or blinding, setting up a business, putting aside money for a grandson’s university fees, pausing for breath, envisaging the consequences of a new policy strategy, simulating amusement, are just a few of the non-copulatory things that populate the nano-thin slice of light between the darkness before and the darkness after.

This occurs to me as I am waiting for a train, and (multi-tasking being the order of the day) thinking about our infinitely complex, infinitely varied lives. The list grows – trying to remember a joke, peering into the dark, running an outpatient clinic, practising a knowing look, crossing Antarctica on foot, campaigning against cuts in public services, and so on – until I come upon the thing I’m doing at this very moment. No, not thinking – that’s had more than its share of air-time in philosophy – but waiting.

The more I think about it, the bigger waiting appears. It fills so much of our lives – certainly more than copulation, even in the life of a dedicated seducer such as Don Giovanni. It comes in a thousand shapes and sizes and modes. A few examples will have to stand for a trillion instances: waiting for someone to finish a sentence; for a friend to catch up on a walk; for the bathwater to run warm; for the traffic lights to change; for the message on the computer screen to pass from ‘connecting’ to ‘connected’; for a fever to abate; for the music to reach a climax; for the wind to drop so you can fold a newspaper; for a child to grow up; for a response to a letter; for a blood test result, an outcome, or news; for one’s turn to bat; for someone to cheer up, admit they were wrong, or say they love you; for Spring, for Christmas, for Finals; for the end of a prison sentence; for The Second Coming (steady work, as Christopher Hitchens said); for a long-awaited heir; for fame or wealth or peace; for retirement; for the end.

Why Wait?

Waiting reflects our helplessness, our inability to control the pace as well as the course of events. We may wait singly or collectively, privately or publicly. We may have to wait because others are before us, acknowledging our subordination to ‘the General Other’ – bowing to those social constraints that, as the sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out, are as real as physical forces. Taking our place in the queue, we surrender our position at the centre of the universe, accepting, in a gathering of ‘anyones’, a place determined solely by the time of joining. The intensity of our resentment of queue-jumpers reflects the depth of this aspect of the social contract. Permitted queue-jumping is a privilege accorded members of the aristocracy, the nomenklatura, the rich – those whose private self-importance is externalised to show they are of greater importance than others whom they have leap-frogged. The rest of us focus on arriving early, before the crush; or we borrow someone else’s time and body to represent us in a queue. The ultimate proxy in the queue is our name, which makes its snail-like progress up a list of names towards the moment where we are called for our elective operation or admitted to the Golf Club.

Waiting transforms time into delay and we bear delay with less equanimity if we think it avoidable. Waiting for a late train, we mill about, alert for the announcement that boarding is to start. At the signal, the milling of the crowd is transformed into a swarming, and a broad river of intentions is shaped into something like a queue as it slows to pass through human and mechanical barriers and onto the platform.

We may wait patiently or impatiently. Waiting for someone to finish the sentence, we want to shout ‘Spit it out, man’. We may betray our impatience by pacing up and down, drumming on the table, or sighing. Or we may use the same involuntary events deliberately to signify our impatience and coerce the thoughtless, or sluggish, or merely incompetent, into speeding up. We resent being kept waiting even when the alternative is not in the slightest bit attractive. This is beautifully captured in a famous short poem by Berthold Brecht – Der Radwechsel, or ‘Wheel Change’:

I do not like the place I am coming from.
I do not like the place I am going to.
Why do I watch [the driver] changing the wheel
With impatience?

Waiting – patient, impatient, agitated – has many allotropes. Our lingering may look like skulking or loitering, and then we experience ourselves as objects of potential suspicion. Because we have no business to transact at the place where we are detained, we fear others will deem that we have no business being there. We look at our watch repeatedly, signifying that we are up to neither good nor bad.

Power & Patience

To be kept waiting is to be designated as comparatively unimportant. As Roland Barthes said, to keep others waiting is the ancient prerogative of power. The one who is loved arrives late, and the one who loves tries not to arrive early. Dysfunctional states and oppressive regimes make their citizens wait for goods, services, papers, and justice. But even those who wish to serve others find they may cause their clients to wait. There is no profession that does not have its waiting rooms.

Slavery and paid employment both entrain much waiting: all jobs makes us waiters. We await the next customer in the shop, bar or restaurant, the next patient, the next client. We have to stay at our post, keeping the shop open and the service running. We are on call, or at least on beck, more-or-less tethered to a larger or a smaller spot, waiting for the phone to ring, the pager to bleep, the customer to make the doorbell ping, the next item on the production line that requires our attention. Payment by the hour obliges us to hang about in clock-freezing attendance, for a fixed period of time, even when there is nothing to keep us productive.

A supreme expression of the power of the job over the person is the life of the squaddie reduced to a mere atom of military capability, and obliged to wait to attention. Pending further instructions, his limbs rigid, his expression frozen, his gaze unmoving, he is not permitted to move without explicit command. Imprisonment goes one further: prisoners are detained precisely to prevent them from engaging in activities – criminal or innocent – that they want to do. And prison sentences are defined primarily by their duration: prisoners ‘do time’.

Of course, waiting may be intermittent rather than continuous, and it may impose no evident constraints. My waiting for promotion, for fame, or for retirement, does not prescribe the spot in which I stand or even what I shall do at a particular moment. Many things over which I have no control – the arrival of The Big Day, for example – require nothing of me, except that I do not get myself in a position that will prevent me from collecting my reward. And some waiting, far from being burdensome, may be actively cultivated. We enjoy the journey to our goal, and its million steps, for their own sake. As waiters, we are sometimes in conflict with ourselves, as when we listen to a story, aching to find out how things turn out, but not wanting anyone to spoil the ending. Don’t – do – keep me in suspense.

We can sometimes anticipate being kept waiting, and take steps to mitigate the feeling of helplessness at our time being wasted. We take a newspaper to the doctor’s surgery, or use the spare five minutes in the ticket queue to make a couple of phone calls, hoping that the recipient is unavailable so that we can leave a message and secure the tick in its box, or we check our diaries while awaiting our spouse to return from the loo. This rarely works out as well as hoped – you never know when you are going to be interrupted. Hardly has ‘connecting…’ changed to ‘connected’ on the laptop screen than your name is called and you find you are keeping others waiting as you wait for Windows to shut down. Or you endlessly interrupt yourself, looking up for your plane to be flagged on the screen and ‘Wait in Lounge’ to jump straight to ‘Last Call for Flight’. Never an idle moment! (Unless our idleness is voluntary rather than imposed, when we are tourists, spectators, or cultivating mindfulness.)

The End Of Waiting

penguinsYou may feel that reading this article is an exercise in waiting – waiting for me to get to the point. Let me put you out of your misery. I wanted to draw attention to something that we often overlook: namely that our lives are absolutely riddled with many different modes of waiting. Even those things we have waited for – pastimes, events, successes, completions – are themselves shot through with waiting. A long anticipated game is filled with micro-waits embedded in its very substance. Enjoying music, we listen out for the next note, or that lovely motif that is gone as soon as it is complete. So many pleasures take the form of waiting for their end, perhaps so we can be on to the next thing. The habit of looking forward is hard to escape from.

The narrative of our lives sometimes seems like a densely woven network of ‘not yets’. ‘Now’ is simultaneously fattened and hollowed out by the future to which it points, and which, along with the past, makes sense of it. Indeed, it is only because the present is both impregnated and eaten away by a past that makes you someone who waits, and also shapes the future for which you wait, that now is more than an uninhabitable instant. If the mouthful of soup were not seasoned by the anticipation of its successors, and the soup course by the entrée, it would not be possible to enjoy something as big as ‘a meal’.

The world is a waiting room. When all the waiting is over, so will be our lives. You won’t cease cooling your heels until your soul has lost its warm body. Whether it survives this loss and goes to a place where there is no more waiting is not something I can discuss now because my long-awaited train has arrived. I swarm, queue, and sit down, waiting for the station slip away – just one of the day’s many waits my journey is taking me to.

For those for whom waiting is inseparable from boredom, I have news. I plan to address this other overlooked, pervasive and unfathomable aspect of human consciousness in a future article. I bet you can’t wait.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2013

Is Raymond Tallis’s new book out yet, or do we have to wait for that too? Look out for Reflections of a Metaphysical Flaneur (Acumen, 2013) and (edited with Jacky Davis), NHS SOS: How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It (One World, 2013).

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