The Value of Waiting

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

for hope would be hope for the wrong thing;

wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing;

there is yet faith, but the faith and the love and the hope

are all in the waiting.

- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets



Listen: do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet they do not go hungry. Do you see?

And which of you, by being anxious, can add anything of value to your life? Why be anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not as magnificent as just one of these flowers. Do you understand?

Listen: don’t be anxious about the things Everyone Else gets anxious about! Rather, seek first to know the Holy in your life, and then everything else will fall into perspective.

And don’t be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious enough for itself. Instead, let the present moment be sufficient.

- Matthew 6:25-34 (Revised Standard Version, adapted)


The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.

Their wisdom was unfathomable.

There is no way to describe it;

all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful

as someone crossing an iced-over stream.

Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.

Courteous as a guest.

Fluid as melting ice.

Shapable as a block of wood.

Receptive as a valley.

Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.

Not seeking, not expecting,

she is present, and can welcome all things.

Tao Te Ching, #15 (Stephen Mitchell, translator)


Years of experience have done nothing to lessen the feeling I have whenever I see Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Even though I know it's coming, my first sight of a Christmas display always startles me. I want to cry out, "Wait! It's too soon!" These past many years, of course, they even pop up way before Halloween.

I do wish they would all wait, not be anxious about the holiday, let the days be sufficient unto themselves. But then, I haven't always wanted to be so patient myself.

Like when I was a little kid – what did I know? I forget how old we were, but I'm certain both my sister and I were still in single digits the time we tried to roust my parents out of bed one Christmas morn sometime around three a.m. (or so I was told by my bleary eyed father, who, not long before, had just gotten to bed). We couldn't wait to tear into those presents that had been put under the tree only an hour or so beforehand. Of course, we were told to go back to bed and wait. It wasn't the first, and it wouldn't be the last time I’d be told to wait.

Waiting does seem to be an “issue” in human living. Stories abound about waiting, from folk tales to family lore. We all know some story about waiting and its advantages, yet we can't seem to do it very well. And just as most little kids are notoriously bad at waiting, for at least the last dozen decades or so, likewise women and men in general have not been too good about it. One of the ancient stories of the Sufi folk figure, the Mulla Nasrudin, gives us his inimitable perspective on the problem:

Three thousand distinguished epicures had been invited to a feast at the Caliph's palace in Baghdad. Nasrudin, by some mistake, was among them.

This was an annual event, and each year the main dish excelled that of the previous feast, because the Caliphial reputation for magnificence had to be sustained and excelled.

But Nasrudin had come only for the food.

After a long wait, preparatory ceremonies, singing and dancing, an enormous number of huge silver dishes were carried in. On each one, placed between five guests, was a whole roasted peacock, decorated with artificial but edible wings and beak, its plumage shining with sugary precious gems.

There was a gasp of delight from the gourmands at Nasrudin's table, as they feasted their eyes on this supreme work of creative art. Nobody seemed to be making any move towards the food.

The Mulla was starving. Suddenly he jumped up and bellowed, "Alright! I admit it does look strange. But it is probably food. Let us eat it before it eats us!" (Idries Shah)

Very often, our desires overwhelm us and our impatience literally drags us toward their object, to gobble it up rather than savor it. Especially in the manic market mood of this season, kicked off as it usually is by this past Friday's feeding frenzy of consumerism, we often ignore the little voice that says, "Hang on...," and heed the louder voice that says, "Why wait?"

Indeed, why wait? particularly when you know (or think you know) what's coming. It raises the question (especially among Unitarians), Why bother with the liturgical season known as Advent? Why bother with such a time of anticipation for what we know happens every year, year after year? Perhaps, as T.S. Eliot wrote, the answer is in the waiting itself.

Waiting is not a very popular activity in our culture nowadays. Even its representative profession very often belies its very name. Waiters and waitresses many a time hover over you instead of waiting upon you. In high volume restaurants, they can even seem to be hurrying you along. Ideally, they should embody the waiting which their title implies, attending to the pace you wish to set, offering unhurried and relaxed time.

Waiting is not a discipline that is encouraged in our market culture, either. Advertising encourages immediate consumption of the goods it offers. It seeks to instill a sense of urgency. It seeks to create need, rather than respond to it, and even seeks to create a sense of immediate need through sales that would lead us to believe that not only do we need this particular item right now, but that now is the only time to acquire it. Don’t wait! they tell us, or you’ll miss the chance of a lifetime. Don’t wait; buy now!

Of course, there are times in our lives when waiting is simply not appropriate. There are times when immediate action and response is necessary, when time for reflection and contemplation would be ill-advised and even damaging. But our response in those times can be enhanced and informed by the strength and the centeredness that we have practiced and nurtured in other times of waiting.

Annie Dillard, in her first book, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, speaks of the value in the practice of waiting. In the woods, whenever we are in Nature, she suggests that we engage in a discipline of noticing, that we develop a discipline of awareness of what goes on around us, and she tells tales of waiting in the woods quietly and patiently. It is much like pausing when we enter a dark room, waiting for our eyes to adjust so that we may see better all that surrounds us. Likewise, we benefit from this same moment of pause, giving ourselves the time to adjust to seeing the myriad wonders of the world in which we live. The details of a forest or field, the movements of wildlife, the tiny blossom nestled in tall grass – all gain clarity as we allow our eyes to adjust to the life that surrounds us.

Similarly, various religious traditions teach that one of the most important aspects of the spiritual life is found in the waiting. Developing a habit, a spiritual discipline, of giving ourselves some time simply to sit and wait is one of the basic methods in which we may gain a deeper awareness, in which we may cultivate an attitude that can inform and enhance our lives at other, more rushed times.

In one of his poems, Jelaluddin Rumi refers to such an attitude as "deliberation." Using what I find a rather humorous example, he says:

Deliberation is one of the qualities of God.

Throw a dog a bit of something.

He sniffs it to see if he wants it.

Be that careful.

Sniff with your wisdom nose.

Get clear. Then decide.

. . .

Constant, slow movement teaches us to keep working

like a small creek that stays clear,

that doesn't stagnate, but finds a way

through numerous details, deliberately.

(C. Barks, trans.)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counsels his listeners not to be anxious about their lives in a worrisome way, not to be anxious about the future. This moment, here and now, is sufficient unto itself. Wait upon it, he says; have faith in the natural unfolding of Life, like the Life you see all around you in the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Worrying doesn't add one iota to the length or quality of your life. So instead of being anxious and worried, wait upon the Holy in each moment, and all these other things will take care of themselves.

Likewise, the even more ancient Tao Te Ching asks if we can have the patience of the oldest of the Wise Ones in their tradition to wait until our mud settles and our waters are clear, to remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself.

I suspect that the most common response to such counsel would be, "Easy for you to say." And that response is certainly accurate – waiting upon the moment is not an easy habit to cultivate. There are too many times when we feel broadsided and knocked off kilter to make such a faith easy. It seems to be an attitude that must be lost and regained over and over again.

I suspect that this is the case because it is the very nature of such an attitude not to be achieved easily. If it were, we would probably gain little by it. We would, perhaps, be naively content, but not wise; human, but with little awareness of the depths of our humanity. Such naive contentment, as well as worry and anxiousness, can keep us from experiencing those depths. And it is the very experience of our human depths that ground us and season us and grant us a kind of knowing that can support and strengthen us in those very times when we are broadsided and knocked off kilter.

Still, waiting is difficult. But it is a necessary attitude to cultivate, for there are times when nothing we can do will push a process along that simply must move in its own slow, deliberative way. Sometimes, difficulties and troubles can be the signals of a deeper process which needs some very necessary brooding time.

Author and psychoanalyst, Nor Hall, writes that to make their way into the world, new insights need to brood, to incubate. Brooding time, which can appear to others, and feel to us, as a very troubled and difficult time, is "often prelude to a creative emergence." It is a time when some new life needs "to be completely covered by an extraordinary concentration of warmth ... surrounded by thoughts, enveloped by the heart's heat, made the focus" of a concentrated gathering of energy, whose purpose is to bring forth something new.

I look upon the season of Advent as such brooding time. It is a time to wonder, what may be brooding in our own souls? What may be waiting within us? What may be needing our attention, need to be surrounded by our thoughts, enveloped by our heart's heat, covered with an extraordinary concentration of warmth and energy? What may be waiting for us to turn our attention to it, waiting for our awareness to add a bit more warmth and compassion to the brooding process already begun?

It takes time, this waiting, this brooding awareness. It will take its own time. It may be difficult or uncomfortable, even painful and disruptive. And, it also may have moments of quiet delight. Either way, we cannot rush it along without doing damage to this process and the newness that needs our careful nurture. Waiting such as this is a form of meditation, a form of prayer, a way of addressing the Unknown, a way of creating a space in which something new may be born.

So it is with this time before us, this season of Advent. It is such a time of waiting. We may believe we know what’s coming, this holiday that comes every year whatever we may or may not do, whether we even like it or not. Yet, we may also ask ourselves, is there something in the waiting this year, brooding within us, within our lives, asking for our nurture, our attentiveness, needing to be surrounded by our thoughts, enveloped by our heart’s heat, that it may be born unto us silently, in a way unexpected, in a place unimagined?

Could it be that unto us a wondrous Gift will be given, if we but wait upon it, and prepare it room?

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