The most repeated word we’ve used throughout this past year is ‘wait’. We’ve waited for news about the pandemic, where it was heading and if it’s under control. We’ve waited for the government to guide us and for the CDC to clarify its plans for its containment and so on. Our culture has been predicated on the passing of time.
We’ve all been actively waiting and as the year crawls to its end, we’re waiting yet again, this time for the vaccine, for when it will be our turn to get it, and for the end of this chaotic period. But as we do this ‘waiting’, I began to realize how limited this word is. The word lacks nuance or synonyms, and while not all waiting is the same, the word itself is. We wait for a hard-boiled egg to cook, we wait for our Covid 19 test results, and we wait for the Messiah. Same ‘wait’ with a totally different meaning each time. There are no less than 10 synonyms for the words ‘Love’ or ‘Hate’, six words for ‘walk’, and so on, yet in a language so rich with nuanced expressions, we hit a wall when it comes to this most common activity around which our life evolves. I wonder why, and what does this say about us?
So, I decided to look into the act of waiting to see where it takes me. Thus I’ll start from the beginning.
When I was a young kid, in the 1950’s, my family resided in what was known then as the Soviet Union. With my mom terminally ill, and my dad jailed for being Jewish, life was terribly hard, causing me to drift into dreams, like all kids do, wishing for the bad times to go away and for our circumstances to improve.
Not all my prayers were answered. Mom did not make it, but we finally left our misery behind and moved to Israel when I turned ten years old. Thus I had been waiting from an early age.
When I tell friends of my difficult early years, they have a hard time relating to it. While I waited for better times, many of them were enjoying their blessed lives. This distinction helps me realize how time passes differently for each of us. Still, the idea of waiting for something, anything, is not limited to people in bad situations. Everybody dreams of better times, regardless of their lot in life!
From the moment we can say “I want …”, we start participating in what I call, ‘The Waiting Game’, anticipating that elusive ‘One Day When…’; “when I grow up, when I have a job, when I move out, when I get married, when we buy our home, when we have children, when they go to school, when they move out, when I become rich, when I leave my horrible marriage, when I retire,” and so on and so forth.
We are constantly affixing our hopes to an endless chain of wishful steps, with constantly shifting goals, until sooner or later we wake up and realize that there are only a few ‘one days’ left for us.
Now in my late 60s, I understand that waiting is a risky game. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, especially true during this time of unyielding pandemic, and as someone once said: “When you are getting old, it’s not the time to buy green bananas.”
I was fortunate enough to raise my family in far better circumstances than my own and learned to appreciate how truly relative our experiences are. Still, most people take their good luck for granted, and if there’s a universal theme to life, it is that no matter their circumstances, people spend much of their lives waiting for that ‘one day when …’
I wonder if our ancestors were anxious to fulfill some elusive goals as well. Or did they just try to get by?
Yet with the new age of the internet, we’ve entered the era of fantasy, where dreams of great riches and grand love abound; any Cinderella can become a princess and any frog can turn into a prince. Such dreams often blind people from what they already have. Most TV programing and social media sell us on the idea that we can do or be anything ‘If only we … do this or that’ and we keep waiting. The question is whether these dreams are worth the price we pay in forfeiting our present in favor of a promised chance at attaining a magical fantasy.
We must remember that everything in life atrophies, us included, and that we all age, wither and fade with time, and yet most people act surprised when the day comes that their future is no longer there.
I am reminded of my wife’s uncle, who at eighty years old, with his son getting divorced, his granddaughter diagnosed with a lifelong illness, and his wife in a coma, asked me in anger: “Why did I have to live this long?” He was done waiting!
As I get older, I realize how much I have to be grateful for, not just for getting past my humble beginnings or not having my wife’s uncle predicament. The person who taught me to be content, was my father, the eternal optimist, who despite his hardship was happy with his lot. In a tough life of failed dreams and lost hopes, he learned to enjoy what he had.
And so, with a far better outlook on life, it is said that we must see the cup ‘half full’, learn to appreciate today and stop always waiting for tomorrow. But how do we accomplish this in a world devoted to grandiose dreams, where trading today’s potential for a tomorrow that may never come is the new norm?
I believe that life is a verb, where we must engage, every day, regardless of how things appear at the moment. I don’t know how I arrived at this attitude. Perhaps it was a fable my dad had told me, about a King who had a box with a roll of magic yarn, which he’d pull every time he’d hit a snag in his daily life and skip the difficulty – jumping over onto the next day. That went on for many years, until one day he tried to pull the yarn and found that there was none left. Life had reached its final turn, and he was done.
Conversely, there are those for whom life is finished. One of my friends who has everything in life, more than once said to me: “I feel like my life is over.” His parents came through the Holocaust, and despite their horrible losses, built a grand family, successful business and wealth, but for my friend – there’s no more incentive. Or maybe he needs a little push, so he realizes life moves on and with it, his chance to enjoy what he’d built.
In that spirit, I remember the Michelangelo biography – The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Irving Stone highlights that at the age of 71, believing he’d wasted his life, Michelangelo Buonarroti is summoned to Rome and ordered to build St. Peter’s Basilica. Thus, the artist who had painted the Sistine Chapel and carved the Pietà, David, and Moses, became the supreme architect of the largest and most important building project in the world, and he did it long past his retirement age. Productive people do not wait, they act.
It is my understanding that we should face life with clear lenses, not rosy nor dark, but with clear focus on the blessings in our lives: our family, our friends and our work; and along the way try and follow every opportunity to realize our dreams. But we should not let them stop us from our everyday joy or become disappointed or discouraged when life doesn’t unfold according to our plans. It is especially important to follow such a delicate balance during this unpredictable period.
And so, while we find ourselves still waiting, we must try and distinguish between the useful versions of this activity and the lesser one. After all, the mere act of waiting renders us passive and uninvolved in the results. Maybe instead, we should get off our ‘waiting chair’ and decide to take charge and become active in the outcome.
I remember a story about my late father-in-law who used to ask my wife, when she was a little girl and came home from school uncertain if she’d done well: “Have you done your best?”
After all, isn’t that the only thing we can do?