So many people have this deep-seated fear of boredom. It is an emotional state that we avoid at all costs. Part of that is the existential crises that boredom might evoke within us. Part of us fear that waiting is a reflection of the fact that maybe life is just about time passing. That is one of our deep fears: that waiting represents life in its essence, that life itself is about just having time pass, and occupying ourselves in various ways as we watch the hours go by. I think we ultimately will work to avoid the discomforts of boredom because we don’t want to have to face our own mortality. Those deep existential questions emerge when we see time, and waiting makes us see time in ways that fun and productive time doesn’t.
Historically, we always have been really bad at waiting, we’ve just had different frames of references. Letters would take 40 days in the 1790s to go down the East Coast. That was what you expected. So when the letter took 40 days, that was exactly on time, and when it didn’t arrive in 40 days, that’s when frustration mounted. Looking at those kinds of examples historically, we can see that we’re always impatient based on what our expectations are. Those expectations shift based on the moment, on the technologies, and on the speed of life at a moment.
If you were to go back 10 years and chart people’s expectations for how long an online video should buffer compared to our current moment, it would be radically different, but I don’t think we are on this linear trajectory toward life just getting faster and faster until we fall apart. We can make some adjustments to say this is a healthier and more enjoyable way of living.
What of your work can we bring to this moment to help us while we’re on this seemingly interminable wait for coronavirus to end?
The first thing that I encourage people to do is get past our knee-jerk emotional reactions to waiting. Instead, ask who’s benefiting from waiting at a particular moment. When we first went into lockdown, and it was just weeks of waiting, I continually came back to this phrase: Waiting is an investment in the social fabric around me. By waiting, I am investing in the people around me and in their wellbeing. The fact that I’m indoors and enduring this waiting is a symbol that I care about their health. I care about trying to stem the spread of this thing.
So, now, when you’re waiting, do you still feel that itch of “I need to check my phone,” or has it disappeared?
It’s a habit, and I’ve gotten better at that. But I’ve had to pay attention to it. Tim Wu has this great book, The Attention Merchants, where he talks about when all is said and done, at the end of our lives, we will be what we paid attention to. That’s sort of the essence of how life evolves. What we decide to pay attention to determines who we become. I’ve kept that in mind, like, I need to pay attention to it in order to alter those habits.
So I definitely feel the itch, almost quite literally, of my phone in my pocket when I have to wait, and I am conscious about leaving it there. I have developed practices that help make it a little bit easier to not turn to that as my default reaction. I mean, I could spend the rest of my life answering email. I will always have an email to answer, from here until I die. So in order to not have my life frittered away answering email or doing very mundane tasks, I have to be deliberate about how I walk away from that.