Walking down the street in New York City one day, I ran into two friends who were so blissful, they could have lit up the street with their smiles. They were well into the process of adopting a second daughter from China, and a few hours before our meeting, they had gone to the agency to pick up her photo. She was so beautiful! We stood on the sidewalk, mesmerized by her little face, with people swirling around us, unconscious of the scene playing out before them: the vitality and tenderness and vulnerability of falling intensely in love. Every single detail of that photo was important. As horns honked and dogs walked by and folks went about their day, we could only stand there and admire her.
Then came the waiting.
It went on for longer than usual, and was very hard. This was at the time of SARS, and for months, all adoptions from that area of China were postponed. My friends and many others who’d memorized their girls’ photos were left waiting, and wondering: What if their daughters were hungry or sick? What if additional time in the orphanage stamped fear deep into the little girls’ bones? That kind of waiting can be nearly unbearable, laced through with helplessness about not being able to do anything, or not knowing how to react. However we wait, whether in openness or in pain, we find ourselves in the place between the known and the unknown, where we have let go of what is apparent and familiar and have yet to discover what is coming next.
Most often we wait because we are not in control of the unfolding of events. Our conviction about what should be resolved by tomorrow doesn’t always make it so. Our sense of timeliness and the correct pace for change isn’t automatically the one the airlines follow, or the U.S. government, or the Chinese government, or a friend who, we believe, owes us an apology. Our grief, our fear, the lag between a biopsy and the report, or a plain old monotonous day doesn’t inevitably speed up because we would have it be that way. Like it or not, for good or ill, we have to wait.
But sometimes we wait because it has become a habit, a way to hold life in abeyance, a means to cocoon ourselves against change and elect numbness. We may become accustomed to not fully engaging, to not trying, to not risking our hearts. In my early meditation practice, I went to a retreat center in India where I received instruction in making a mental note of my physical and emotional experiences throughout the day. Whether I was sitting, standing, walking, lying down, eating, or taking a shower, a part of my mind was witnessing the predominant activity and silently noting it. Strangely, I found that the single most common mental note I made was waiting. Finally, I said to myself, What are you waiting for? I realized I was waiting for something exciting enough or important enough or distinctive enough for me to make note of it. I was approaching life as though I were a tape recorder with the pause button on. I was waiting for life to happen, for a better experience to happen, for a sense of connection to happen… later.
We might wait full of hope for a better day, or calmly, or distractedly, or with a certainty born merely from our thoughts that the terrible mental picture scaring us is bound to come true. This last can be like watching a door slowly swing open in a horror movie, sure nothing good is on the other side of it, powerless to race over and shut it tight against the intrusion. That’s an awful kind of waiting.
And sometimes waiting can be a blessing. It might be a respite, a pause within which we allow healing to have its own rhythm, or things to take their time, or nature to follow its course. It can be a time when we relinquish our efforts to be in control and instead empty ourselves of demands and expectations and constraints.
In the best-case scenario, the landscape of waiting is a delicate one: an unbounded, translucent stretch of time before reality returns to ground and reshape our sense of what will be possible for us. We can mentally perform any act of boldness, imagine a novel feeling of contentment, or envision a magical turn in our lives. Waiting is a world in between worlds, where anything might yet happen, where everything is still to be made manifest, and where, for a while, there are no limits.
Sometimes in that in-between space we connect to a larger truth that moves us without our will or contrivance. As I was writing this, I got a call that a friend had died. I asked if his son had arrived from across the country in time to see him alive. My caller responded, “His son got here an hour before the death—it was almost as though the father was waiting for him.” I know so many stories like that: “It was uncanny—she held on until she knew her son wouldn’t be reneging on any responsibilities, then she died.” Obviously, we don’t make conscious decisions dictating when to die a natural death. But somehow, in the process of letting go, we seem to know intuitively when it is time to welcome change or to say goodbye.
Perhaps the lesson is that when we find ourselves waiting, whether through force of circumstance or lingering habit, we should listen deeply. When the delay is gruelling, as it was for my friends who had to postpone their trip to China, we need to do everything we can to minimize our own or someone else’s suffering, and not confuse waiting with being inert or defeated. Whatever the particulars, we should feel the ground beneath us and observe the space around us. And remember to breathe. We can learn to pervade the terrain of waiting with our awareness, to make it vital and connected and fully alive.