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By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
Our earliest experience with waiting might be when, as children, we are forced to endure the almost unbearable countdown to Christmas morning.
Learning how to wait is an invaluable life skill, but one which, ironically, takes time to acquire. Those visions of sugar plums that danced in our heads while we listened for the tiny reindeer hoof beats on the roof didn’t come naturally. They were the result of the power of suggestion.
We were taught to go to bed and imagine what we might find under the tree and in our stockings, even though every normal instinct told us to go downstairs every five minutes to check and see if the jolly old elf had already arrived.
Smaller additional lessons in the art and wisdom of postponing satisfaction presented themselves throughout the holiday season. For instance, while we might have been satisfied with eating raw cookie dough, even preferring it, our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers insisted instead that we wait for the finished products to be baked. Furthermore we had to wait for them to cool down.
Standing in line to see Santa to tell him our wishes was a particularly grating exercise in developing patience and fortitude, too. It was also when we began to recognize the reality of our self-centeredness and the primacy of self-interest.
“Why do those kids at the front of the line take so long to recite their list? I won’t do that,” we thought to ourselves, only to discover that once it was our turn on the bearded one’s knee there were a dozen or more things we needed to ask the old gentleman, and we felt no urgency to hurry.
Throughout our formative years we encounter similar cases: Sitting through the previews at the movies when it feels impossible to wait for the feature to start. Anxiously waiting for college acceptances to arrive. Spending an hour in the doctor’s waiting room reading year-old magazines or playing games on our cell phones until our turn is called. Marking time while the Novocain takes hold.
The old, old saying that a watched pot never boils absolutely feels true if we want a cup of tea while dinner is still hot (unless of course we nuke the water in the microwave).
Waiting can make one hour seem like an eternity if you are sweating out a verdict or the results of a medical test. Yet, in this age of ever-increasing instant gratification, the idea of putting off anything we don’t absolutely need to put off seems quaint, even laughable.
Our electronic devices make it easier than ever to obtain things we used to wait for. Looking up answers to questions on Google that once took hours and hours to find using the reference department at the library requires mere minutes now.
Want to know the score of the big game even though you’re at a wedding or sitting in traffic? Just sneak a quick look at your phone. Need to find a restaurant that is safe for serious allergy sufferers? Ditto!
But, when waiting is unavoidable we have found creative and sometimes inspired ways to multi-task. Stuck in a line that winds around the block hoping to buy tickets to a play-off game, a big concert, or to get the latest apple device? Read the news or a book on your phone or tablet. Listen to some music from iTunes.
Sometimes in the same situation we knit or we text for work or for fun. We tweet. We do exercises or we meditate. Turning inescapable waiting into an opportunity for productive use of the time has almost become an art form.
Depending on our personalities there are even times when we prefer to wait rather than “get it over with”. Certain medical examinations, for example, don’t fill us with happy anticipation. So, we procrastinate, which is the flip side of hating to wait.
Learning how to wait is indispensable, though. Developing a philosophy and a strategy about delayed gratification is an absolute necessity for navigating the path to maturity and adulthood. You must defer some pleasures to get an education. You have to develop fundamental skills, strength, and conditioning before you can play a sport at the higher levels. Even with precocious ability and the latest computer and electronic study aids you can’t learn a foreign language or how to play an instrument masterfully without going through a process that requires waiting.
And then there are the big milestones like parenthood, professional advancement, the accumulation of resources, grandparenthood, retirement, and the golden years, things that only the passage of time will bring.
So perhaps this year we can think of waiting for Christmas morning as a reminder that “all good things come to those who wait.” Or, maybe – if you like another old adage better – you might come to the conclusion that patience is a virtue after all.