Ask the Experts: Harold Schweizer on waiting
Harold Schweizer, the John P. Crozer Professor of English.
Posted: February 17, 2011
Reposted June 23, 2011
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Harold Schweizer, the John P. Crozer Professor of English, talks about the value of waiting in an impatient world.
Q: In a recent talk, you said that what has value must be waited for. Yet with all our technology aimed at instant gratification, how can we learn to value the concept of waiting for anything?
A: The notion of value depends on our own investment in an object. If an object is to be valuable, we have to invest ourselves in it. There is no better investment than to give one's time, to wait for something. Most often, if one gets a desired object immediately, one's own being is not involved in that object, and the object remains impersonal, exchangeable, dispensable. It has nothing of ourselves in it.
To wait for an object endows it with value. To contemplate an object without possessing it is valuable, because the sense of whether one should possess that object or not is acquired in that duration of waiting. Not to wait, to be instantly gratified, can produce a gratification that will be short-lived and will have to be replaced by another gratification as soon as possible. Waiting — patient waiting — is opposed to greed and consumption.
This whole thinking goes back to the somewhat unfashionable concept of courtship, a period of waiting in which we come to know the value of a person through waiting. It is through our existential presence, our giving of time to another person that we come to recognize that person's value.
Q: Can you teach the value of waiting?
A: Through writing a book on waiting (On Waiting (Routledge, 2008)), I might perhaps have become a better waiter. One can learn to wait better by being conscious of waiting, by giving permission for time to pass, not to resist it, to find value in that duration of waiting. I remember waiting for a train in Paris. It was a long wait, about four hours, and I was very impatient. Because I was impatient I was not invested in the time that was passing. I wasted my time.
French philosopher Henri Bergson said, "It is we who are passing when we say a time passes." In that sense, I wasted myself as I was impatient. I refused to give permission to myself to be in that time, to be that time that was passing. To give permission to oneself, to be in the time that one is, would amount to being patient.
Q: What would you do differently if you had to wait those four hours today?
A: As I was writing my book, I began to use my experiences of waiting as research. I asked myself, what happens when I'm waiting? How am I experiencing this wait? I became aware of my pacing, my glancing at my watch, my staring at objects around me with that characteristic mix of compulsion and boredom that is typical for the person who waits. Because I was waiting, I suddenly saw a lamp, a chair, a shoe. When such gratuitous and trivial objects all of a sudden came into view, I realized I was a thing among things. I happened to be there just as fortuitously as a lamp or a shoe.
During the composition of my book, I experienced waiting with a sense of fascination; that fascination hasn't left me. In waiting I encounter myself as time, as that existential, temporal self that I am. I am the time that passes. In a poem by Elizabeth Bishop a little girl by the name of Elizabeth waits and suddenly realizes that she is "an Elizabeth." She has become aware of her existence, of the time that she is.
Q: Why is it important to learn to accept the necessity of waiting?
A: In the haste with which we live our lives we are in denial about the necessity of waiting. It is a denial because we do have to wait. We always wait for something, for somebody, eventually for death. We ought to make peace with that necessity of waiting so that we learn to wait well, above all so that we can wait for death, so that this death will not come unawaited, so that we can wait for our own death, the death that becomes our own through our waiting for it.
Parents are perhaps the best waiters as they wait for a child when a mother is pregnant (which in German is called a waiting). The baby has been waited for and will be welcomed as something that has the value that is invested in her through the time that the parents embody in their waiting.
Q: What do people who are impatient miss in life?
A: I think they miss their own lives, they miss the encounter with their own existential, temporal selves. The impatient person misses to pay attention to that mysterious, seemingly useless, self that reveals itself in the act of waiting.
Q: Have you spoken about this with your students? Is there a difference between those who are older and college students who have grown up with this sense of immediacy?
A: I hope I have become a better teacher because of my investment in the question of waiting. First, I hope I have learned to wait for my students and with my students as we read, as we study. I ask my students to learn to wait as they read. Sartre says that reading is an act of waiting; one waits for the next word, for the sentence to end, for the paragraph to end, for the next paragraph, so reading is always an act of waiting. The implication is that things will reveal themselves temporally, through the act of waiting.
When we give ourselves to a text or to work of art, when we control our impatience to get something out of it (a meaning, an interpretation, a truth) then we are giving that object time to reveal itself to us. I'm trying to teach my students to wait, that is, to be present, not to be impatient, not to want something from the text before the text is ready to give it to us.
I sometimes compare our presence before a work of art to our presence before a patient. I've done some work in the medical humanities and it's taught me that the way we wait with a patient is actually something that we could learn from waiting with a work of art. || More: 'The Patient' explores waiting, suffering and humanity
I like to think that works of art elicit from us a kind of mute presence. We are initially simply in their presence, just as we cannot do better when we sit at somebody's bedside than to share ourselves with him or her, to wait patiently with the patient. Perhaps physicians could learn this patience from works of art: to be first and foremost present to a patient, to wait so that the patient can reveal himself in his own time.
In our time of instant gratification, I realize that my thoughts are impossibly idealistic; time is money. But if time is money, we have commodified time, and in such a time waiting is useless, wasted. Perhaps we have commodified our lives.
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