On the verge
Waiting... What is it, exactly?
July 11, 2001
The Egyptians have a greatly used gesture: They bring together the tips
of all five fingers on one hand, turning their hand into a closed tulip
and move it downwards, as if someone was pulling down on their wrist with
a string. It means wait. Be patient.
The same word in Persian and Arabic, patience is described in the Quran
as being beautiful although exactly a beautiful what, is not very clear.
What is patience? Is it a sentiment? A characteristic? An act? Exactly
what is it?
Webster defines patience as the capacity to be patient. Patient, it
turns out, has 5 different meanings all of which share the concept of willing
to tolerate, bear, or suffer something or another, from the Latin word pati,
Patience is also closely associated with the act of waiting, an interestingly
oxymoronic act as waiting itself seems to imply a lack of action, an action
on the verge of happening.
The space I most associate with waiting is airports. Open spaces where
if one is not embarking or debarking a plane, one spends time waiting there.
Getting off a plane in the early hours of morning with a long layover ahead,
I feel the prospect of waiting --exemplified by rows and rows of other waiting
people sleeping either on the seats or on the cold empty floors of the airport--
weigh down on me. In those hours when even airport cafes, bars, stores
are closed, all you can do is wait, all you can do is go back and forth.
It struck me once that this entire sitting about waiting was merely a prelude
to another: To that of sitting on a plane. From 1 hour to 13-hour flights,
time seems to tick by slowly, ever so slowly.
And patience also seems to be an essential element in love. Like a
plane ride, it isn't enough to just decide where you're going, buy your
ticket, pack your bags, and go to the airport. The hardest part seems to
be once you are on your way. Waiting sits smack in the middle of a relationship.
Waiting to learn about the other, waiting for you or them to mess things
up, waiting for it to work out, waiting to fall out of love, or in love
with someone else. And it is that part that's the hardest, that most us,
that I, have the hardest time with. The patience that another soul requires
at times seems to be an impossible act/sentiment/characteristic. You meet
someone, you fall in love, and you wish you could close your eyes and just
be "there," wherever that may be.
Patience even seems to be the essential element in Iranian politics
these days. In many ways, what divides the supporters of the reforms (and
Khatami) and its opponents (I do not mean the conservative opposition inside
Iran) is the ability and desire to be patient, to wait and to see. I have
had innumerous conversations about Iran and have had the opportunity to
listen to the radio bist-o chahaar saa'ateh.
Those who oppose Khatami repeat the not very brilliant criticism that
it is impossible to have a democracy within the current constitutional framework.
It has become their mantra, the reason for their opposition, and the reason
for not voting in the recent elections. Those who support what is going
on in Iran today often respond by saying we need to wait, we need to give
them a chance to work things out. Waiting seems to be the operative act
here, that form of inaction that seems to accomplish everything if one sees
Life itself seems to be one long act of waiting, a waiting that begins
with our consciousness of death. If we are patient throughout, then, conventional
wisdom goes, we will live a good life, we will live gracefully. If we suffer
through it, we get to die a happy death.
But why wait? The answer obviously is because we have to: In life,
in love, in politics, in airports, and in airplanes.
Why be patient then? What's the need to be patient? So here's an argument
against patience: Impatience adds zest to waiting, it actually adds a little
bit of action to an essentially flat and eventless passage of time. (If
it were eventful, it wouldn't be waiting.) Impatience, one could argue,
actually melts waiting away.
Impatience is not recommended to all. It makes rides (be they of the
airplane, love, or life variety) intolerable, even painful. It also makes
getting there an amazing experience.
Love, some would argue, is a medium towards couplehood and all that
it implies. Go slowly, compromise, be patient. But what if we saw love
as an impatience with life, as a way of making that long passage to death
a story worth telling, worth remembering, worth re-telling? Should we then
be waiting gracefully? Or should we jump up, make a fuss, dirty our hands,
break our hearts, and generally create mayhem in our lives?
I really don't know. I just hate the wait.