As a boy, surreptitiously listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater on a transistor radio under my pillow after being told to go to sleep, I felt both guilty pleasure and the thrill of forbidden adventure. I’d catch bits and pieces from AM stations hundreds of miles away late into the night, carried from the pitch dark of my basement room into some larger world of alien lives and ideas and conversation. The airwaves were oceanic, and I set sail nightly on a journey that left me feeling at once larger than life and unimaginably small.
Nowadays, waiting for sleep means slipping my tiny radio under my pillow and listening to the BBC. Having lived in England for two years as a young man, I enjoy being transported overseas to another place and time in my life both for the comforting familiarity and for the frequent forays into the unfamiliarlive reports from a Thai sweatshop, a Congolese refugee camp, an Arctic scientific venture, backroom politicking in the Hague or an in-depth discussion with a noted philosopher. A favorite of mine is Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter From America, a cultural institution in Britain. Since 1946 Cooke has addressed his British audience from his adopted country on political and cultural topics in his signature style, which is at once elegant, spare and meandering. I know of nothing else like it, and I wait for it. Whatever his subject, I lie engulfed in the darkness of the wee hours listening to the vivid colors of his mind and his prose.
Such moments of synaesthesiathe sensation of seeing sounds, hearing images and colorsuggest the way in which those moments and hours lying in wait before sleep bend and stretch the imagination. The mind becomes a passenger on a ride both more opaque and more vivid than any in our normal waking hours, when we exercise greater control over what we think and do next. This is how waiting can be regarded as both torture and opportunity. Waiting is a paradox, an activity requiring passivity. We’ve all known this frustration, but seldom do we contemplate, let alone embrace, the fruits of waiting not merely patiently but richly.
Literary and biblical tradition is filled with great wait-ers: Lear, waiting to die; Penelope, waiting for Odysseus’ return; Robinson Crusoe, waiting for rescue; Noah, waiting for the waters to recede; the Psalmist, waiting to be comforted. Judeo-Christian tradition centers on waiting. At this time of year Christians await the Epiphany. And who among us is not waiting for epiphany? There are as many ways to wait as there are individuals. Lear embraced the storm; Crusoe fashioned a microcosm and made himself king; the Psalmist put his journey to verse. Contrary to popular belief, to wait ably is not inimical to boldness and creativity, but an inspiration for them.
In one of life’s wonderful ironies, waiting teaches us that so much of what we wait for turns out to be anticlimactic. Both culturally and spiritually, anticipation of Christmas far outstrips the holiday itself. Planning, hoping, going inside ourselves, seeking out darkness in order to discern better the long-awaited light like the three kings, what beckons us is the distant star rather than the light within our grasp. The patient searching manifests a deep-seated longing. The gift is not the end or culmination; waiting itself is the gift.
The entropy and triviality of the daily grind cannot quash our inborn yearning for epiphanyfor some person, event or realization that will make a difference. We don’t consciously await or seek revelation; we don’t lose sleep over itmost of us, anyway. But on a level far more instinctive than consciousness, the human journey is an abiding desire for something atemporal, for that which is beyond our ken and beyond this world. Thus, while most of us eschew waiting as synonymous with wasting, the truth is that the act of waiting is more than the sum of inconvenient detours from life. Waiting is an implicit acknowledgment of our powerlessness. It is elemental and quintessential to who and what we are: waiting foregrounds our contingency.
Each life is but a speck on the canvas of history, here and gone in an instant. Therein lies the pang and the elation of being human: we are puny creatures who are nonetheless imbued with an ineffable, transcendent ache, wherein extraordinary beauty and inspiration are born. Marking the passage of time may describe the parabola of our mortal existencethe rise and ineluctable fallbut it by no means defines us. Contingency does not imply acquiescence, just as waiting need not be a relinquishment. While sleeplessness is no virtue and certainly no gift, waiting can be: it reminds us that there are no wasted moments, only finite ones. Do not go gentle, exhorts the poet, because the waiting is too fertile, the living too compelling, the hours too dear.