by Stefany Anne Golberg
We haven’t always known we’re waiting. For millions of years, we waited to evolve, we waited for ourselves, but we didn’t know we were waiting then. For millions of years after that, as animals, creatures of the land, we waited in the way that animals do. We waited for seasons so that we could eat, we waited for birth so that we had purpose. But still, we didn’t know that we were waiting. So we weren’t actually waiting. We were just being. And then, at some point, long ago but not so long ago that we cannot remember, we started to have consciousness, awareness. We learned that we could control the things we waited for, could plant what we most desired to eat, and so forth. And with this understanding, we stopped just being and started waiting.
The last time we really considered waiting may have been the 1950s and 1960s, when Existentialism was popular. Existentialism put thinking about waiting back on the menu, because it was primarily a philosophy that sought to understand Time and what we were supposed to do about it, this airy abstract concept that affected every little thing we did but yet had no control over.
In 1953, the world saw the first production of what is the greatest Existential work about waiting that I know—certainly the most famous—the play Waiting for Godot.
The plot of Godot, if one can call it that, a plot, is this: two men distract themselves while waiting (for Godot) with a variety of amusements including but not excluding: telling stories, eating, singing, sleeping, exchanging hats, talking about the past, hugging, thinking about leaving, and contemplating suicide. The men are named Vladimir and Estragon and the play is in two acts. In 1956, Irish literary critic Vivian Mercier wrote that, with Waiting for Godot, Beckett had “achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.” Because Godot never arrives, no one has ever been sure what to believe about Godot, about what or who a Godot is. Some people think that Godot really does show up, though the details of this are mysterious. A lot of people interpret Godot as Death, that Vladimir and Estragon spend the play waiting for death, and thus that the act of waiting is like dying. But waiting is more insidious than that. Waiting is not dying; it is absence. In the act of waiting, we spend a whole bunch of energy trying to fill up all the absence, but as we do so, everything just keeps feeling emptier. Still, it doesn’t stop us from trying.
Because Waiting for Godot is not about Godot but about waiting, thinking about Godot leads us into the very same trap that Vladimir and Estragon fell into, i.e. that if you just think hard enough about waiting you can start to live again. Beckett was fully aware of the emptying out of life that happens when you are thinking about waiting. And when he himself started thinking about waiting, he had an insight into a terrible truth: Never again, Beckett knew, can we wait and just be. Now, when we wait, we are inevitably thinking about waiting—the two are inextricable. Waiting had become consciousness of Time, horrible oppressive Time. Time is God. What we are doing when we are waiting/thinking about waiting, Beckett told us, is trying to get closer to God. Meaning just this: When we wait, we are trying to control the uncontrollable, to understand the incomprehensible.
On a platform, a woman stares down the tracks, looking for the face of a train. She is wearing red, maybe to attract the train, to pull it closer to her, faster to her, like the woman of Babylon in Revelations hastening the end of the world. There is a man too, several men, they are looking at their wrists, shifting around, trying to act casual, trying to hold it together. The platform is full of men and women, waiting, waiting to get home—or to go… somewhere? Each of them is listening to a private concert—presumably, understandably, different private concerts, though one wonders what would happen if all the musics could suddenly be heard at once. It would be a fitting soundtrack for the chaos of waiting.
How is waiting for an arrival different than waiting for a departure? Is that there much of a difference, really, between coming and going?
Just this year, an American man named Harold Camping figured out that the end of the world was happening, that Judgment Day was nigh, and that it would happen on May 21, 2011. He figured out this date with numerology. As they waited, Camping and his followers occupied themselves by advertising for Judgment Day. All around the country, billboards were put up and announcements made on the radio. Campings’ believers passed out flyers on the street and invested their life savings into the campaign. Why not? Many quit their jobs to prepare for the looming end times.
On May 21, 2011, Judgment Day did not come. At least, not in the form that was recognizable as such, and so if Judgment Day did come it didn’t count. But even Harold Camping admitted that no Judgment Day had come. He had been mistaken, Camping told his followers, told the press. May 21 was not Judgment Day. All the same, Camping then said, the end of the world was still happening. On October 21, 2011, just like he had predicted.
What did all these believers do when the wait was finally over, when no Judgment Day came? Of course, we know. But this question is irrelevant anyway. What makes us understand the world the way we do, what shapes us, is not that events will happen, but that we wait for them to happen.
WHAT WE DO WHILE WAITING
1. Look at the time. (note: we can’t control time!)
2. Look at each other.
3. Look at books.
4. Look at billboards and flyers.
4. Look at devices that play music.
5. Think about our day past.
6. Think about the day ahead.
7. Think about waiting.
We all focus our lives around some BIG EVENT, or intermittent series of big events, with an endless smorgasbord of activities thrown in. Dates are the markers of these events. Dates and times. Calendars and clocks don’t tell us what we do. They tell us what we wait for.
Waiting has become one of the more difficult tasks humanity faces. With each new tool we make to count Time, speed Time, slow Time, waiting becomes more and more terrible. The most difficult thing about waiting is, as we agreed, being forced to have a relationship with the unknown. Technologies have gotten better at helping us predict the future, with the result that our waiting time—i.e. our time spent in the presence of the unknown—is minimized. But it’s still not enough. It’s never enough.
Is waiting a state of being or is it an act of consciousness? It’s hard to say. One thing we know, though. Waiting is undesirable, regrettable, at times frustrating as all hell, and to be avoided at any cost. Waiting signals a breakdown of order. In modern times, when we are waiting, it’s because we think that something is not functioning properly, someone isn’t doing their job.
This might be my own hang-up, but lines are the worst form of waiting after the ultimate wait—waiting for death—which is to say that waiting in lines is the worst occasion of waiting after life itself. I once wrote a song that compared standing in lines to little deaths, drops into the infinite when you feel that your very self has no reason, no power, when you think about the past and future at once, and it takes everything you have to maintain an atmosphere of order and sense. In other words, to maintain patience. Often, when we are waiting together, the patient are considered weak. The strong rail against waiting. You can tell who are the strong ones in a waiting situation. How dare you make me wait? is something they might say. But let’s not forget that patience is order, and impatience is chaos.
I called the song ‘Queuing Theory’. Queuing theory is the study of waiting in lines. Examples of Queuing theory occasions for study are:
– waiting to pay in the supermarket
– waiting for information
– planes waiting to circle before they can land
– waiting to be served in a restaurant
– waiting for a train
About waiting, you might ask:
– what is the average waiting time of a customer?
– how many customers are waiting on average?
– how long is the average service time?
– what is the chance that one of the servers has nothing to do?
Queuing theory is useful for people in operations management, for helping businesses get the most bang out of their waiting buck. It helps businesses decide just how much or how little control they can or need to have over their customers’ waiting times. If you are a mathematician, knowledge of Queuing theory might make you more or less patient in a waiting situation. But mathematicians know the disturbing fact about Queuing theory. They know that the models for Queuing theory often assume infinite numbers of customers, infinite numbers of ‘queue capacity’. Queuing theory often predicts wait times for a world that has no limit to waiting. Some think this is a flaw of the theory. But perhaps it is a secret truth, a secret we all know, too.
By allowing ourselves to wait we are making one very presumptuous presumption about life: that we actually have somewhere to go, something to do. Waiting pisses us off, but without waiting, how would we know if our lives had meaning?
Waiting pisses us off, too, because of all these expectations that we have about Time, but the reason we have expectations is that we expect Time to move in a linear fashion. Time has a beginning and an end. Anyone who tries to suggest otherwise, that time perhaps moves in circles or spirals, or, like the String Theorists, that there are multiple times existing concurrently—these people are duly denounced and ignored. Time, as we ALL KNOW, has a beginning and it has an end. When we step on to the train platform, we are starting one moment—the imminent arrival of the train—that we know will end with a final act—the arrival of the train. When the train doesn’t come, we don’t just get annoyed, we get scared. We are terrified when the train doesn’t come because it’s at this moment that we start to think to ourselves: Maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe there is no ending, and no beginning either. Maybe my whole life is an infinite loop of this: getting to the train, getting on the train, being on the train, leaving the train, missing the train, never having gotten on the train. But if that’s the case, then my life is continuity. If that’s the case, I don’t have to ask, “What am I waiting for?” If that’s the case, I’m never really waiting. I’m never waiting for time to pass, because for time to pass it has to eventually start and stop. If that’s the case, maybe waiting is just another word for living. It’s a devastating thought though, I would say. To live is to wait. To live is to wait.
There’s a sigh of relief when the train finally comes, but why? It’s not as though lives have changed by this fact, the train’s arrival, even one tiny bit. But it feels like it. The end of a wait feels like a movement towards something. The end of a wait feels like the beginning of something new. But if you can live inside the waiting, can be present for the wait, rather than wishing it finished, rather than holding your holding your breath—you can almost trick yourself into believing that you are really living.