Advent, Waiting, and Experiencing Life 2

A woman sits on a rock, waiting for the sun to rise, like we wait during Advent

Waiting for Advent and Beyond

Advent, that month before Christmas comes, is about waiting. Mary and Joseph waited for Jesus to be born. Today, many of us wait for Christmas. Throughout the season and beyond, faithful Christians wait for the Messiah. This is not a bored or frustrated waiting, at least not for those who celebrate the holiday and revel in the coziness and closeness it symbolizes.

Yet, this is not everyone’s religious story. Even if we do claim it as our own, the day can be filled with memories of loss or abandonment. Still, we can love the music, love the Christ, love the hearth. Then the waiting of Advent is filled with hope, anticipation, and preparation.

The dutiful Christian may feel eager for a triumphant Messiah to return. The secular may wait in hope for gifts that shows how deeply we have been seen and understood. Time might pass too slowly. Yet our waiting during this season feels purposeful. In that purpose is a kind of joy.

But Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and even when it’s over, we wait. We wait at the grocery store to check out, at school to use the slide, at work to go home. We wait for the party to start, for the rice to cook, for a friend to come over, for the band to play, for a chance to sleep. Anxious and uncomfortable, we wait for a place to live. In agony, we wait for the dentist to pull our throbbing tooth. When we have finished waiting for one thing, a new waiting begins. Always, there is something to wait for.

Waiting for Godot

Waiting can seem interminable, like hovering in a nowhere realm, a space in which nothing happens and nothing matters. Like the acedia Kathleen Norris describes in her book Acedia, this kind of waiting can feel empty, detached, lonely, pointless. She likens acedia to that “place where we wait for Godot.” [1]

Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot [2] is stark, bleak, and absurdly funny. In it, Vladimir and Estragon, men without a history or real identity, wait by the side of the road for Godot to arrive, though they are uncertain who he is, nor are they sure he will actually appear.

Are they in the right place? They must be, for Godot said to wait by the tree, and there’s only one tree anywhere around, though it doesn’t have any leaves, and it’s small. It could be a bush.

Do they have the right day? They think he said Saturday, though they don’t know which Saturday. Maybe he meant yesterday. They don’t think they were there yesterday, so they might have missed him, but they’re not certain. They don’t remember.

A woman sits on a rock, waiting for the sun to rise, like we wait during Advent

In spite of, or because of, all this uncertainty, they wait. They try to carry on a conversation, but have nothing interesting to say. Their words make no sense. They consider hanging themselves from the branches of the tree, but decide that’s too risky. The limb might break, and besides, they don’t have any rope.

Absurdity and Meaninglessness

This is not the only absurdity. As Vladimir and Estragon wait, two travelers come through, Pozzo and Lucky, his slave. Their conversation is, if possible, even more ridiculous and confusing. Throughout the monologues and diatribes, we see the suffering of these men, yet none of them show any sign of caring for one another. The emptiness in the landscape mirrors the emptiness in their hearts.

Finally, after Pozzo and Lucky leave, a boy comes to tell Vladimir and Estragon that Godot won’t be there that night, but surely he will come the next day. Hopeless, the two decide again to kill themselves, thinking they might use Estragon’s rope-belt. But when they test it by pulling on the ends, it breaks. There’s nothing left for them, then, but to leave.

Vladimir asks, “Shall we go?” and Estragon says, “Yes, let’s go,” and they continue to sit without moving, and the play ends.

Thus the term “waiting for Godot” has come to mean any hopeless, interminable, unsatisfying wait. The play is indeed a metaphor for the relentless, empty despair of acedia. Sometimes waiting does feel this way.

Waiting with Uncertainty

Waiting can also bring up anxiety. Although we never really know the future, most of the time we act as if we do. We trust our days will continue as they have, that plans will be fulfilled, that children will grow and dreams will come true. Then life surprises us, and not in a way we appreciate.

Recently, I sat with a woman who had just learned she might have cancer. No one knew for certain, and they had to run more tests, but it was possible, and if she did have cancer, it was might be advanced. The news left her in shock. She also felt adrift, caught up in the uncertainty of not knowing. Waiting can be like that. We wait for news of a lost loved one, of the result of tests. We wait to get those tests in the first place. Through it all, we likely feel nervous.

People have different ways of coping during a time like this. Some fall into frantic worrying. They fuss and complain. Once, when I offered a client tools that could help ease the anxiety of his worry, he told me he wasn’t interested. He didn’t want to stop worrying, for the worry motivated him. It helped him change things. Without it, he feared the possibility would become a tragedy.

Other people lean on their faith. They believe in a god who will never forsake them, in eternal life, in the rightness of even terrible things. After all, with our limited human view, how can we know what is, within the context of eternity, for the best? What’s the worst that could happen, after all? Death? If death has lost its sting, why be scared?

Waiting and Survival

Actually, as far as we know, there are worse things than death, such as unremitting abuse, torture, unceasing physical pain, debilitating brain damage, even an acedia that won’t go away. I’ve talked to some who would rather die than live with their suffering. They are waiting, and sometimes they pray and hope for relief, since crying out may be the only thing left for them to do. But they don’t how where relief might come from. The unknowing itself hurts. To survive such a life, one often numbs the body and the spirit. One separates from one’s self.

At such a time, hope may be a thing that betrays. Faith may seem a farce. Vladimir and Estragon were filled with that kind of despair, where nothing could be done and nothing prayed for.

But when our faith is strong, we can find relief in something as simple as the waiting of Advent. We can be comforted as we anticipate the coming of a Messiah. Some people who ask to speak to a chaplain have lost their faith. Most, though, believe in a deity who will see them through the hard times. The woman with the unknown diagnosis was like this. Once she got over her shock, she remembered her belief in a Christian God and in the power of prayer. So she prayed, and she asked for me to pray over her. She felt confident, for no matter what happened, God would be there.

So we survive the unknowing. We may run away, or hide, or tell ourselves stories. We may believe in the promise that things will get better, that life is not over, that hope is still possible.

W.A.I.T.

There is, though, another way to get through waiting, no matter what the waiting is like. Whether joyful, frightening, boring, or lonely, it need not matter. If we do not project ourselves into the future, there is no waiting at all. There is only what is. This moment; this experience.

The idea for this column came out of a comment made by one of our members. He said he’d been to a training where he learned about the acronym W.A.I.T. Developed by Todd Henry and explored in his book Herding Tigers: Be the Leader Creative People Need, it stands for “Why am I talking?” [3] Though not meant to be an exercise in mindfulness, nonetheless, this acronym can remind us to focus, to be present, to be still.

Interpreting W.A.I.T.

Many bloggers have written about how they use this acronym. Alan O’Rourke developed a flowchart for meetings that suggests we ask ourselves some questions before we speak: “Do I have something important to say” or “Do I have a strong opinion to share?” If the answer is yes, then ask, “Is this the time to speak?” If the answer is still yes, then ask, “Is what I want to say on topic?,” “Is it my turn?” and “Did someone already say this?” [4]

Perry Holley used the teachings of W.A.I.T. to improve his communication so he might enhance his influence in his profession. When we acknowledge we don’t know everything about a subject, when we learn to be comfortable with silence, and when we stop trying to top everyone else’s story, we begin to hear what the other person is saying, and we are better able to respond in a way that supports them and also gets us what we want. This can be manipulative, but it can also compassionate. [5] Jeremy W. Richter expanded the concept of W.A.I.T. to help attorneys consider the purpose for everything they say in court. [6] In his article, “Wait – Why Am I Talking?,” Chris Green encouraged ministers to use the acronym to avoid talking too much or trying to fix everyone’s problems. [7]

Beneath all of these interpretations lie the simple concepts of stopping before we speak, paying attention to our thoughts and our motives, and being still so we can truly hear what is said and what is left unsaid. This is all a kind of waiting.

By waiting and listening and striving to understand, we learn something about the other person. We may also learn something about ourselves. Even more important, if we are honest in our waiting to talk, we show that we care.

The Activity of Waiting

This kind of waiting, a waiting that is akin to listening, is undertaken with intention and attention. It is not a passive exercise. Contrary to what Beckett’s play may make us think, waiting is not a passive and impotent search for something to do, someone to be. Norris explains that the word “wait” comes from the term “vigor.” Thus waiting is a “vigilant and watchful activity” that helps us stay focused on what is happening in this moment. [8] It helps us stay mindful.

Waiting watchfully also engenders hope. Norris quotes from Isaiah who said, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). She notes that Jesus’ night of waiting before his crucifixion allowed him to become “the most radically free and dangerous man.” Waiting actively left him with a hope stronger than death, stronger even than torment. He was no longer afraid of anything. [9]

This is the waiting of Advent, a waiting meant to make us stronger. Comparing the two kinds of waiting, that found in Beckett’s play and that in the Advent story, Paul Axton notes that the Christian message isn’t anything like that of Beckett’s. [10]

Christian Commentary

Yes, some commentators see Beckett’s play as a parable or a metaphor, with religious symbols scattered throughout. For instance, there are references to crosses. Estragon thinks of himself as Christ, and at one point calls himself Adam, then another time Abel. Vladimir himself wonders about the crucifixion and the two thieves, one of whom was or was not pardoned, depending on which gospel you read. More uncertainty, more unknowing, more absurdity. What can we believe in, Vladimir wants to know?

But the play is more existentialist than religious. If Godot is a metaphor for God, it’s a God who never arrives. Is Advent as ridiculous, a waiting for someone who will never come? If one is not Christian, it may seem so. But is there nothing we can learn from this season of waiting?

The Eternal Advent

As we saw, Axton does not believe the waiting of Advent is the empty hopelessness found in Beckett’s play. Though we may suffer, and though waiting may be long and tedious, and though we might long for God to step in and relieve the world’s misery, we are not promised freedom from pain. That is not what we wait for, to be saved from our experience. Indeed, it is less that we wait for something than that we wait with. During Advent, we are reminded that in all our waiting, we wait with hope, but we also wait with God. God has already come. Vladimir and Estragon do not realize this. They cannot tell if Godot has arrived or not, nor if he will ever arrive. For Christians, however, there is no question. God is here, beside us, so that even in our suffering, we are complete.

This kind of waiting is less like an anticipation than like a being. Hours pass, and we have holidays to prepare for. We have plans and hopes and expectations, but this is the stuff of life, no matter what our faith or the season. When our waiting is akin to anticipation, then we are living in the future. When we wait in a state of being, knowing that what we look for has already arrived, we no longer seek to be someplace other than where we are. We are here.

Life Is to Be Experienced

In Beckett’s play, the slave Lucky makes a long, convoluted, and incomprehensible speech. Called his “think,” it makes sense if pondered at leisure and analyzed in depth, revealing itself to be a powerful expression of the absurdity of life as we understand it. For Lucky, there is no God, no purpose to our research and inventions. According to him, progress is an illusion.

Yet, according to the analysis of Mark and Juliette Taylor-Batty, when Lucky recites his “think” on the stage, with its twists and turns and empty, obfuscating phrases, the audience cannot possibly understand what he’s trying to say. [11] The words themselves are spoken in what the Taylor-Battys call a “triple meter,” a rhythm we associate with comedy. This speech thus provides us with an experience rather than with an understanding. [12]

So, too, does a later passage. Here Estragon and Vladimir are talking to one another. As is typical in the play, the meaning of their words is confusing. According to the Taylor-Battys, Beckett in this reveals how language can distract us from reality. Yet in this section, Beckett himself uses language in such a way that it lulls the listener. Instead of pondering the meaning of what we hear, we become caught up in the sounds themselves. The Taylor-Battys write that “form supersedes content.” We are given “an experience of what is being expressed” rather than having the opportunity to focus and make sense. [13]

Advent as An Experience

Even in the form of his words, then, Beckett highlights the meaninglessness of our existence, but he also offers us a chance to experience life. Perhaps he is trying to tell us that, even if there is no god, even if our strivings are pointless, and even if death will one day wipe it all away, we are alive, and killing ourselves is not an option. Life is meant to be experienced, even savored.

Lawrence Graver suggests that Beckett was dramatizing “what it is like and what it means to exist in a state of radical unkowingness.” [14] But this is not as terrible as it sounds. For Beckett, this world into which we are born is not just absurd; it is also funny and poetic. Norris reminds us that we don’t know the future. Tragedy will strike, but there will also be blessings. “Our difficult and glorious task is to live through it all.” [15] Or, as Beckett might say, don’t try so hard to make sense of things. Just enjoy the rhythm.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Norris, Kathleen, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life, New York: Riverhead Books, 2008, 103 ebook.
  2. Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot: Tragicomedy in 2 Acts, New York: Grove Press, 1982. All quotes are taken from and online version that had no page numbers: http://www.napavalley.edu/people/LYanover/Documents/English%20121/English%20121%20Samuel%20%20Beckett%20Waiting%20for%20Godot.pdf.
  3. Henry, Todd, Herding Tigers: Be the Leader Creative People Need, New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2018.
  4. O’Rourke, Alan, “W.A.I.T. Why Am I Talking? – A Better Meeting FlowChart,” June 25, 2015, Licensed Under Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/toddle_email_newsletters/18956529930/in/photostream/, accessed 12/12/19.
  5. Holley, Perry, “W.A.I.T. – Why Am I Talking? Tips to Increase Your Influence Through Effective Communication,” The Remarkable Manager, 2018, https://www.remarkablemanager.com/articles-1/2018/3/5/wait-why-am-i-talking-tips-to-increase-your-influence-through-effective-communication, accessed 12/12/19.
  6. Richter, Jeremy W., “Fear You Are Talking to Much to A Jury? Then WAIT,” ABA Journal, September 5, 2018, http://www.abajournal.com/voice/article/fear_you_are_talking_too_much_to_a_jury_then_wait, accessed 12/14/19.
  7. Green, Chris, “Wait – Why Am I Talking?,” Ministry Nuts and Bolts, 2018, https://ministrynutsandbolts.com/2018/05/21/wait-why-am-i-talking/, accessed 12/14/19.
  8. Norris 344 ebook.
  9. Ibid 346-347.
  10. Axton, Paul, “Waiting for Godot or the Wait of Advent,” Forging Ploughshares, December 5, 2019, https://forgingploughshares.org/2019/12/05/waiting-for-godot-or-the-wait-of-advent/, accessed 12/14/2019.
  11. Taylor-Batty, Mark and Juliette Taylor-Batty, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, New York: Continuum International, 2008, 45.
  12. Ibid 46.
  13. Ibid 51.
  14. Graver, Lawrence. Beckett: Waiting for Godot, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 44.
  15. Norris 346.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved


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