Wait Well: A Reflection from Dr. Mark Sandle, Professor of History
What have you waited a long time for? What are you still waiting for? Who are you still waiting for?
I have been thinking about waiting for quite some time now.
This has, in part, been prompted by living through this pandemic. We are, all of us, waiting. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for a test result. Waiting to see people again. Waiting to travel. Waiting for “normal life” to return. Waiting for anxiety and dread to disappear. Waiting for the package to arrive. We wait for other things, too, in non-pandemic times. Waiting for that text message. Waiting for that phone call from the doctor. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Waiting has become that rare thing in today’s world: a universal state of being that we all share (even though of course the type, intensity, and duration of the waiting is felt very differently in different communities). I too am waiting for this pandemic to subside. I am longing for the return of face-to-face teaching. There is one exception, though — I have given up waiting for the England soccer team to win the World Cup again. I will die long before that ever happens.
This personal waiting time has intersected neatly with my professional activities. The research for my latest book — about the experiences and emotions of humans living and dying in WW2 — has given me pause to consider what waiting must have felt like for everyone who lived in those times. How did people feel living through the war? As I comb through the diaries and the stories, I am struck by the words that I read, and by the emotions that lie behind them. The constant gnawing fear. The grief and the despair. The love and the hate. The loss. The anger and the sadness. I have become preoccupied with some of the more everyday feelings that people had. The stoicism. The living through a protracted global conflict. The fragile hopes. And waiting falls into this category. For central to the experiences of WW2 was the act of waiting.
The war was very different from our pandemic times, of course, and we should be careful of drawing parallels with our current predicament. But, having said that, there are, I believe, some things that might resonate with us if we listen carefully to their voices. What can we learn about how to wait well from the people who lived through these times?
There were different types of waiting in WW2. Much of the waiting was episodic, intense, replete with dread and fear: the combatants who were waiting to go into battle; the civilians waiting for the drone of the engines to pass overhead — unsure if it was their turn to be bombed; the prisoners waiting for their punishment to begin. Eric Lomax relates a terrible story of waiting. POW punishments could last for hours, sometimes days. As one person was being slowly physically degraded or killed, the others waited their turn. Would it be them? The waiting was interminable. Time disappeared. You were frozen in an intense moment, driven to the edge of insanity:
“There was nothing we could do about it now; we stood there knowing it was coming . . . We stood there for 12 hours with our back to that hut. The nerves and flesh of the back become terribly sensitive and vulnerable when turned to an enemy. At any moment I expected to feel a rifle-butt on my spine, a bayonet thrust between my shoulder-blades. All we heard was their talk, the occasional rough laughter. The intense heat of the sun, the irritation of flies and mosquitoes feeding on sweat, itching skin, the painful contraction of eyes against the light and even the fear of violent death has been superseded, by the evening, by the even more powerful sensation of a burning thirst… the gang came back out at night. My special friend Morton Mackay was called forward. I was next in line… The moments while I was waiting my turn were the worst of my life. The expectation is indescribable; a childhood story of Protestant martyrs watching friends die in agony on the rack flashed through my mind. To have to witness the torture of others and see the preparations for the attack on one’s own body is a punishment in itself, especially when there is no escape. The experience is the beginning of a form of insanity.”
But there was also a much slower, seemingly endless form of waiting that people in WW2 experienced: everyday waiting. People had to wait in line. People had to wait for water supplies to be restored. Combatants spent so much time just waiting to move. Prisoners and internees lived in an almost perpetual state of waiting: waiting to be liberated. Waiting for the hunger to subside. Waiting for something to quench their thirst. Waiting to die. Of all the forms of waiting experienced in WW2, probably the one that speaks most directly to us is the waiting generated by the deep uncertainty of wartime. When will it end? When will we see our loved ones again? Will we see our loved ones again? Will I survive?
Tragically, much of the waiting of wartime went on long after the war was over. This Belorussian woman reflects on the emptiness of waiting for her lover to return:
“I look out the window, it’s as if he’s sitting there …Sometimes in the evening something seems to be there...I’m already old, but I always see him young. The way he was when he left. If I dream of him he’s always young. And I’m young too…The women all got death notices, but I got a scrap of paper - “Missing in Action.” Written in blue ink. For the first 10 years I waited for him every day. I wait for him even now. As long as we live we can hope for anything…”
The waiting here is endless, unrequited. The woman waits. And waits. And waits. It stretches out before her. That tiny phrase — “missing in action” — is both a fragment of hope and a nagging torment. With both uncertainty and possibility, each day brings both hope and despair as the waiting continues. The war is over but the waiting—the waiting is never over.
One of my favourite WW2 poems is called “Wait for me” by Konstantin Simonov. There is a line towards the end—“You alone knew how to wait”—that has given me pause to reflect upon the “how” of waiting. How do we wait well? What does it mean to wait well? How do we remain hopeful in the face of deep abiding uncertainty and fear? Those who learnt to wait well came over time to know the following things.
James Stockdale was imprisoned for seven years during the Vietnam War. He experienced torture, deprivation, and uncertainty. How did he survive? He says that he was able to survive because he forced himself to acknowledge the terrible reality that he was now living in. He remarks that those who were optimists did not fare well:
“… they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. I lived on a day-to-day basis . . . .”
To wait well means to live on a day-to-day basis. To face and accept the reality of the situation we are in every day. We must recognize the pain and the stress, the despair and the longing, that we are all experiencing. But the key is not to allow this acceptance to move us into passivity or a spiral of despair. Instead we should ask ourselves: what then shall we do today, given where we are at? Faith that we will get through this has to go hand-in-hand with the acceptance each day of the reality we are living through. It takes patience and discipline to focus on the day that stands before us.
Secondly, to wait well is to wait “with” as well as to wait “for”. Just waiting “for” something or someone stretches out the time in front of us and forces our attention onto a not yet realized future. This is natural of course, but it can be problematic because we do not see what is directly around us. Instead of waiting for — or perhaps as well as waiting for — this to be over, we should wait with intention. Don’t pass up the opportunity to find life in each moment. We don’t know how long this season will be. The temptation is to spend it perpetually longing for it to be over. But simple practices and rhythms can help us. Be a good friend. Be a good neighbour. Do your work well. Connect with your loved ones. Perpetual longing might also mean we miss a new way of being in the world that is emerging slowly in this waiting time.
Thirdly, hope. Hope disappears quickly and comes back slowly. Despair works in the other direction. So how do we find hope in a time of waiting? It is important to recognize that hope is different from optimism. Hope, according to Vaclav Havel, is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but is rooted in the conviction that there is good in the world worth working for. Waiting with hope means doing the work of gathering the fragments of hope we find around us each day. Where are the fragments of hope, the glimmers of light? Find them. Keep them close.
Fourthly, to wait well is to recognize our powerlessness and our lack of control. In WW2 millions were put into positions of powerlessness by forces outside of their control. This is an important reminder, particularly for those of us who are fortunate enough to be wealthy, educated, and privileged in today’s world. Billions of people around our world today live lives at the mercy of markets, climate, and the arbitrary actions of others. They are almost totally powerless. Waiting can remind us of the lives of others and deepen our sense of empathy. To wait well requires an acceptance of our lack of control and an acknowledgement that one of the great illusions of modern life is that many of us “control” our lives. Instead, in recognizing our relative powerlessness, we can focus on the everyday virtues of solidarity, empathy, patience, and perseverance.
Finally, waiting well can help us to rethink our understanding of time. Waiting for something to be over can lead us into a way of thinking that we are ‘wasting’ time and that when the waiting is over we will be able to resume our ‘normal’ lives. This leads us to see time as a resource to be consumed, rather than a gift to be enjoyed. We might just want to give pause to dream of another, better world than the ‘normal’ we were in before this happened. The war caused people to dream of a better world and to take steps to realize that. Maybe, as we wait, we can allow ourselves to dream a little too.
We are all waiting and longing for this time to be over of course, just as the people in WW2 waited and longed for the conflict to end. As we do so, let us learn to wait well, and to work for the good that there is in our world.