Make America Wait Again

By John McCaffrey
This photo of the New York City subway system’s Eighth Avenue line was taken in 1974, in many ways a golden age of waiting. Jim Pickerell, Environmental Protection Agency

A childhood friend and I were talking on the phone recently. He’s someone who has forged a long and successful career in digital marketing, and we discussed how technology is changing the way we experience the world — in particular, the speed at which we can get information. What is the score of the game? Who authored the Second Amendment to the Constitution? Who do I know who can explain how to sell things on Amazon? So much good can be found in a flash, yet we both believe there is a fundamental virtue being damaged. Waiting. 

The act of waiting is a strange thing to feel nostalgic about, but more and more I’ve come to miss the time I once lost in pursuit of what I wanted to find. For example, my friend and I reminisced about going to a local library whenever we needed to research a school assignment or just to discover an answer to a trivia game question. Traveling to the library took time, and, once inside, it took more time to find the right book or books, and even more time to find the information needed. Now, all this can be done in seconds, with the push of a button or the click of a mouse. 

But what we gain from expedience, we subtract from experience: A computer screen can’t provide the unique smell of a library, the awe of being surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, even being chastised by a librarian for speaking too loudly. Chances for human connection are decreased — the catching up one does with a friend when he calls to ask a question, sharing successes and struggles, affirming and reinforcing relationships. You can’t do this with Google or email, or a LinkedIn profile. It might take longer to get to the result, but the secret is the journey.

So what, you might say. Who has time to waste nowadays? If we can remove as much waiting as possible from our lives, won’t our lives improve? 

Perhaps not. Jason Kurtz, a New York City psychoanalyst, award-winning playwright, and author of the memoir “Follow the Joy,” sees waiting as an opportunity for people to exercise patience, something critical for our psyches. 

“Patience,” he writes, “or what we might call frustration tolerance, is an essential component of mental health, simply because not everything can come on demand, or according to our schedule. Learning how to be patient, learning how to tolerate the frustration of things taking longer than we want them to, ultimately helps us get more of what we want and need, while impatience often means missing out on the most important and gratifying things in life.”

The good (or bad) news is that modern life still has lots of logjams to keep us on our toes, even if we’re standing still. According to a Timex survey, for instance, Americans wait an average of 20 minutes a day for the bus or train, 32 minutes whenever they visit a doctor, 28 minutes in security lines whenever they travel by airline, 21 minutes for a significant other to get ready to go out, 13 hours annually waiting on hold for a customer service representative, and 38 hours each year waiting in traffic.

That’s a lot of waiting. Plenty of time to feel upset, to accept the situation, or be grateful for the opportunity to not only practice patience, but practice to be patient. 

No rush, it’s up to you to decide.

John McCaffrey is the author of “Two Syllable Men,” a collection of stories published by Vine Leaves Press. He lives part time in Wainscott.