The art of waiting well
Nicole Law learns the hardest lesson of Advent.
In her book Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil says: “The attitude of looking and waiting is the attitude which corresponds with the beautiful. As long as one can go on conceiving, wishing, longing, the beautiful does not appear. That is why in all beauty we find contradiction, bitterness, and absence which are irreducible.”
Waiting is an essential human experience, a humbling one which reminds us we have very limited control over the progression of our lives. It is sometimes a test of patience (something which I sorely lack at times). Sometimes a character-building exercise. Sometimes it’s the wait at the bus stop. Sometimes it’s the anxiety of three dots as you anticipate a reply on a messaging application.
At each point of our lives, we are continually waiting on or for something or someone.
As we wait, we construct expectations of what will ‘arrive’ at the end of our period of anticipation. We theorise the length of this time of waiting and feel discouraged when we glimpse other people get on another bus or train and speed ahead of us. I am no stranger to the fear that this waiting is interminable and that I may not necessarily like what awaits me at the end of this enforced delay.
In the process, I have become too concerned with the object instead of the objective of my waiting. It is easy for us to give in to our natural inclinations to measure our personal experiences against the yardstick of others. We set ourselves up for disappointment when our lives appear very different from theirs or the ideal we have in mind (almost always constructed in comparison with what we believe others have achieved).
Waiting in fear and anxiety is a tendency we all have – we even fear waiting itself because of the uncertainty it entails. We become anxious in the period of waiting as we have little idea of when, how and even if what we desire will manifest itself.
I like to think that two millennia ago, our ancestors waited for the arrival of Jesus with the same trepidation. Indeed, both the history of the period and the gospels show that desire for the arrival of a Messiah in Israel had reached fever-pitch. The Israelites were groaning under a foreign oppressor and were waiting for the fulfilment of the promises of a saviour Messiah, even if many of them had a wrong, excessively political idea of what this Messiah would do.
Even today, we construct our own idea of the Messiah – those idols we pursue to satisfy our innermost longings.
We long for salvation but mistake what it actually consists in.
It seems clear to me that little has changed – we are still waiting and searching for something more, something transcendental.
As we venture deeper into December, I reflect on what it means to wait with joyful anticipation. For Christians, Christmas celebrates the Incarnation – the birth of the Christ child, God in human flesh, in a manger in Bethlehem. The days leading up to Christmas are known as Advent, defined as ‘the arrival of a notable person or thing’ – a season of preparation.
I try to spend these weeks in prayer and reflection and I practise almsgiving, to prepare my heart to welcome the baby Jesus at Christmas. Others find solace in solitude, preferring to enter into a personal retreat away from the stresses of daily life. But even if you can’t do that, taking a step away – some hours, some minutes – from the hustle and bustle of this season, with the pressures of family dynamics, last minute gift purchases and bad traffic, may be the one thing we need to finally return to ourselves, body and mind.
With so many Christmas parties (curtailed perhaps by Covid) and so much spending, we seem to have our feast before Christmas arrives. We have forgotten how to wait and to expect, which also involves delayed gratification. Let’s hear Simone Weil again: “As long as one can go on conceiving, wishing, longing, the beautiful does not appear.” But it is hoped for!
There is something beautiful about not yet having, about expecting, about savouring the aroma and not just gobbling the dish without appreciating its subtle flavour. We see this beauty in the excitement of children as they look forward to Christmas, whereas their enjoyment of the presents might not last all that long.
Let us take time to slow down a little, calm our hearts and learn to wait well for what we desire and long for (Christ or something that has been on your heart and mind for a while – something noble and wholesome) with a spirit of joyful anticipation. To anticipate that something good lies on the other side of this period of waiting is the fuel which will continue to carry us forth well into the new year too!
Enjoy Nicole’s article? Click here to take a read of last week’s article where she offers some practical ideas on how to make the upcoming festivities more human and more authentic.
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