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The Wonder Report: January 28, 2022
The Struggle of Waiting
Winter weather has settled in deep here in the midwest. We’ve got a few inches of snow on the ground, and the mercury mostly stays below freezing now. But we still get outside for walks most days, and our hearts fill with gratitude every time we see the sun. How’s the weather in your neck of the woods?
Ah the weather. It’s a notably safe topic of conversation and a stubbornly persistent cause of consternation. Even mild weather can ruin our plans, and in its most extreme forms, weather can cause enormous damage or even take our lives. You could even say that weather is another one of those limitations of being human we talked about last week. Which is probably why this famous weather quote (attributed both to Mark Twain and Will Rogers about their respective homes) is so often recited: “If you don't like the weather now, just wait a few minutes and it will change.”
But waiting isn’t easy either. Estimates suggest that we will spend anywhere from 5 to 11 years of our lives waiting in lines, at stoplights, and for tardy friends. Of course the human experience of waiting goes much deeper than that. Not all waiting consumes our full attention. Even when we’re actively engaged with work or school or parenting or caregiving, we’re also passively waiting for the next stage or season. And since our lives are lived in bodies that age and break and eventually die, you could even say that our whole lives are spent in the process of waiting.
That’s what we’re going to talk about in this week’s Wonder Report.
(By the way, a quick welcome to several new subscribers. We’re in the middle of a series on what it means to be human. If you want to catch up, here are the first two entries:
And thanks for subscribing! It means a lot to have you here!)
1. Human Waiting
“I just wish I could go to sleep and wake up on March 1 and our move would over,” I said to Steve recently. We’re moving to a community about 40 minutes south of our current home, and since we signed the contract last fall, we’ve been waiting.
Of course the “going to sleep in one place and waking up weeks later in another” plan would allow me to avoid the work of packing and lifting and unpacking and organizing. It would also relieve me of the angst of living and working among boxes, wondering if there will be delays on our closing, worrying that the weather will impede the movers, and just generally feeling out of sorts. But that plan would mean missing out on the anticipation of a new home and new community, leaving the hard work to others when I’m capable and interested in helping, and generally sleeping through days and days of my life—days that are numbered and doled out in exact measure specifically for me.
Our youngest son finds himself in a similar quandary, not just over our upcoming move but also because he is a senior in high school. And senioritis is fierce. He knows what he’ll be doing after graduation; he has a plan he’s excited about and eager to get to. But he can’t. Not now. Not for four more months.
“I just wish it was June already,” he’s said on multiple occasions, and as a parent, I’ve doled out the wisest of advice.
“June will come soon enough. But in the meantime, how can you make the most of these days?” I tell him. “You’ll never get these days back.”
And sometimes, when I want more than ever for it to be March 1 already, I remember this wise advice for myself.
Waiting is hard. It lodges us between two realities—the one safe and predictable without the hope and possibility of “next,” the other an infinite space of possibility, filled with the angst of “not yet.” Waiting takes us to the precipice and then covers our eyes. It allows us a glimpse of expectations and dreams and wonder, but it demands we fulfill the obligations and duties of now, too. Waiting is a liminal space, where the past remains unfinished and the future unbegun.
Every day, we experience tiny doses of life in between:
in line at the grocery store, we have a cart full of items we’ve chosen but don’t yet possess.
at our children’s school, we wait to be reunited with our offspring, but we sit in a car all alone.
at the stoplight, we see where we’re heading, but we’re forced by law and custom to remain where we are.
And then sometimes, the waiting takes on a weightiness beyond our capacity. We wait for a phone call, a test result, a diagnosis. We wait for a verdict, a first cry, a first day. We wait for the flash of headlights in the driveway. We wait for the final breath of a loved one. In this space, normal life is suspended. What once was will never be again, not exactly, but what will be could splinter off in a hundred different directions. Most of them unbearable. Yet somehow, we carry on. We feed the dogs. We make dinner for our family. We show up to work. We pay the bills. And none of it makes any sense any more, at least not while we’re waiting.
In a larger sense, our entire human lives are built on this paradox of waiting. We begin our lives with a death sentence, an unknown timer constantly ticking off the minutes and days of our lives. And we’re trapped in a back and forth game of what was and what will be. When we belong only to ourselves, when the goal is to live for our own desires and fulfillment, then a life of waiting becomes primarily about optimizing ourselves and finding our true purpose before the timer runs out.
But when we belong to God, when our lives our not our own, when both our identity and meaning are given to us by God, then this in-between space can also have purpose. We can look to the past with gratitude and the future with hope. We can seek and find truth and beauty and rest in the present knowing we have been, will be, and are even now held in His love.
That doesn’t mean waiting is easy, though. In You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World*, Alan Noble acknowledges that “while we wait for Christ to return, coping with sin, injustice, suffering, and a society that is not built for humans will be difficult.” I think of the German word sehnsucht, which seems to capture this sense of longing many of us experience in life’s in between. Quite literally, sehnsucht means “a sickness caused by a yearning desire.” One writer says it “represents thoughts and feelings about all aspects of life that are imperfect or unfinished, and comes along with a desire to experience utopian, alternative realities.”
Sehnsucht seems to be an inescapable part of being human, maybe even God-given. It’s like Blaise Pascal’s “God-shaped hole,” the “empty print and trace” inside each of us that we “try in vain to fill with everything around [us], seeking in things that are not there the help [we] cannot find in those that are.” Pascal says that “this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself,” which means, for the Christian, our sehnsucht is temporary. One day, we’ll be reunited with Christ fully—we’ll be home—and our spiritual homesickness, our sehnsucht, will at last be appeased.
But in the meantime, we can also find comfort in knowing that “in designing creation, God took our human frailty into account, and blessed us with a number of gifts that help make life tolerable,” Noble writes. “Understood rightly, these are ways that belonging to God is a comfort in life.”
In life as in waiting, a lot of us are tempted toward a “going to sleep in one place and waking up weeks later in another” plan. We numb ourselves to the sehnsucht with work and entertainment, with social media and substances. Eventually, we wake up and the waiting is over, but so is life. And I don’t want that. None of us do. It’s not what we were created for.
Instead, we can set our minds and hearts toward all that’s good around us, “to whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Phil. 4:8). We can love God. We can love others. We can invest ourselves in our families, our churches, and our communities. We can enjoy art and nature and friendship. We can play sports and musical instruments and video games.
“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Eccles. 3:12-13)
In other words, we don’t ignore the sehnsucht, and we don’t try to hide from it. Rather, we let it make us more human, not less.
I wonder … what is your experience with waiting? Does some waiting seem harder than others? Why? Have you ever wanted to put your head in the sand as a response to the angst of waiting? Did you? Or what did you do instead? Do you think of life as one big exercise in waiting? If so, what are you waiting for? How does that change your experience of more “minor” waiting … like a drive-thru line?
2. The Future of Hope 4 with Michael Pollan and Katherine May
I found this conversation between Michael Pollan and Katherine May intriguing and enlightening. For one, these two writers describe themselves in paradoxical terms: “we both write in a kind of spiritual realm, but we’re both deeply secular,” May says. Also, much of this discussion is about the use of mind-altering substances, which might immediately call to mind the tragedy of the opioid epidemic but actually begins, surprisingly, with the very normal addiction most of us have to caffeine. But it doesn’t stay there. It also explores Pollan’s research and personal use of psychedelics—drugs capable of producing non-ordinary states of consciousness—which have been legalized in some states. You can see why this might be an interesting discussion.
But here’s the part I found most fascinating. Pollan describes the altered state of consciousness produced by psychedelics as “ego dissolution.”
“I realized the opposite of spiritual was not material,” Pollan said. “The opposite of spiritual was egotistical thinking; that it was the ego that separates us, whether it’s from nature — it’s the ego that allows us to objectify the other. And that other might be the natural world, but it could also be other people; many of us objectify other people. And so that became how I came to understand spiritual experience. It’s deep connection. And it might be with God, for some people, but for me, it’s with nature. It’s with music. It’s with all these things that I merged with when this barrier came down.”
This language of “deep connection” reminds me of the language of belonging we’ve been borrowing from Alan Noble. While Pollan doesn’t arrive at the same conclusions, he’s identified the same problems and longings: that belonging to ourselves is never going to be enough.
3. “A psalm of waiting as the pandemic continues” by Brian Bantum
If I had to describe the complex feeling of waiting, I would read this essay aloud. In it, Dr. Brian Bantum, professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, describes the perfectly held tension of disappointment, relief, uncertainty, and rest that waiting creates.
He describes the particular waiting of our (hopefully) late pandemic days like this:
“It feels a bit like we are in the first part of a psalm, where the narrator laments and cries out to God, against God, for God. We sing and sing, waiting for that but that turns the reader back to God, reminding us of what God has done, of what God’s presence might be. Deep down I know this. I know that we are not the only people to live in a moment when the world feels like it’s hurtling toward something terrible. I know that I am not even close to the fraying ends. But somehow in this moment I can also feel the pulls and the tugs and the interconnectedness in ways I had never quite been pricked by before.
4. Hope in the Lord and Keep His Way
A few weeks ago, I shared a reading of Psalm 46, then ended by repeating Psalm 46:10 eight times, dropping one word with each repetition. I love this exercise, introduced to me by my spiritual director.
This week, as we talk about waiting, I wanted to offer a similar reading of Psalm 37, along with a repetitive exercise using verse 34, ending with the word hope:
Hope in the Lord and keep his way.
Hope in the Lord and keep his
Hope in the Lord and keep
Hope in the Lord and
Hope in the Lord
Hope in the
So much of Psalm 37 rings true with Alan Noble’s words I quoted above: “While we wait for Christ to return, coping with sin, injustice, suffering, and a society that is not built for humans will be difficult.” But it also reminds us that hope is real. Not hope in the ways we distract ourselves from pain and waiting, but real hope. Hope in God.
We’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. As always, thanks for joining me here. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together. It’s my favorite part of my writing life.
Throughout the month of February, my family will be moving (as I mentioned above). My plan is to continue sending The Wonder Report each Friday, but I suspect there may be a week or two when that isn’t possible. If that’s the case, it will be a temporary blip in my publishing schedule, and you can look forward to seeing me back in your inboxes in March.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
Until next time,