I spent three hours waiting in line at the social security office last week. It was first thing in the morning, and the line weaved away from the designated waiting area, out the door, and down the sidewalk. The waiting area was smaller than I expected for a government building in a largely populated area. My three-year-old son, precious extroverted soul that he is, began chatting with anyone and everyone in line. His favorite question was: “What are you doing?” He was told many times by several sidewalk warriors that they were doing the same thing he was doing: waiting.
Waiting to complete any form of governmental business feels like a particularly heinous sort of wait. Perhaps the end result doesn’t feel quite worth it. Leaving the social security office after a completed task doesn’t quite compare to the thrill of reaching the end of the line at an amusement park. I overheard several people in line pronounce their judgments upon the system: “Why couldn’t we do this online?” “Why is the waiting room so small?” “Why don’t they have more people working so we don’t have to wait as long?”
Therein lies the rub. We wish we didn’t have to wait so long. This, of course, is no surprise in our insta-world. With information at our fingertips, our source of connection in our back pocket, and technology that somehow unites an entire planet, it is a wonder that waiting hasn’t been eliminated entirely.
Since I succumb to this insta-flu of wanting everything in a blink of an eye and finding my tolerance for waiting diminishing with every notification, the title of Jason Farman’s book caught my eye. In Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, Farman offers an antidote for my sickness: waiting, he argues, is not only necessary, but a valuable part of communication.
In an extraordinary flyover through history, Farman demonstrates how waiting is often central to the message itself. After sending a text message, we tend to impart meaning to those three little dots telling us someone is responding. During natural disasters, any form of contact is more assuring than silence. In both cases, we give meaning to the space between direct communication. Rooted in the context of the relationship and circumstances, waiting becomes part of the communication itself, even when it is interpreted incorrectly.
Farman’s examples of waiting in history focus on specific technologies in different time periods that influenced not only how we communicated, but our expectations of waiting. Much like our instant messages, the pneumatic tube systems in underground New York allowed messages to be transported at 30 miles per hour, making the community feel as if they were living in the future. The new-at-the-time technology changed the expectation of how long one should wait to receive a response. The parallels to our modern day experiences are both astounding and humbling. The technology in our pockets actually affects our expectations about reciprocation, waiting, and communication in general. Since it is possible to respond instantly, we expect such response instantly. The irony of it all, Farman argues, is that technology that aims to minimize our waiting ends up centering it (9). The delays become part of the communication itself.
Farman goes on to demonstrate the importance of context, geography, culture, and systems of power all at play in our waiting. What seems like a perpetual inconvenience and a loss of productivity is actually riddled with information and is valuable for our communication. The creation of knowledge, the process of thought, and the imagination all require waiting. Farman has painstakingly researched the history of waiting and offered a sampling to us as motivation to elevate our view of the dreaded task. Instead of trying to escape it, perhaps we can learn from our ancestors who also tried to minimize waiting in their own contexts. From their tools and tactics, we learn how much was communicated simply by waiting. From their anxiety over minimizing the wait, we learn how our modern day experience really isn’t anything new. Perhaps it’s OK to slow down and enjoy the process.
As a Christian, I found a few aspects of Farman’s book particularly compelling. His chapter on medieval wax seals as the contemporary read receipts had explicit connections to Christianity. He notes that images were impressed upon the wax due to the cultural context of Christianity in Europe. The practice of sealing an envelope was a “Godlike act of creation, imprinting identity onto the document” (150). The seal represented the sealer, but it also “linked the abstract document to the reality it was signifying” (151). The distance bridged through communication was aided by the use of this tangible technology. It sure wasn’t FaceTime, but wax seals communicated presence, authenticity, and promise. The language Farman uses is remarkably similar to the Westminster Catechisms on the sacraments, and I couldn’t help but rejoice that the Lord has given his people baptism and the Lord’s Supper as these signs and seals for us. Though we long to be with him in glory, we are bound to this physical and spiritual waiting. Yet in his kindness, he bridges the gap of our wait by offering us tangible signs and seals, reminding us of his presence and promises to his people.
As a result, our waiting is transformed into anticipation. Waiting is our “longing for a different future” (68). The buffering symbols on our computers give us hope that something is happening in the system that we cannot see or understand, something worth waiting for. Farman notes that these symbols are merely icons that aid us in our waiting, making us three times as willing to sit patiently for progress than if nothing appeared on screen (70). With the sacraments, we know that God is actually, actively doing something in and through these signs. They are not mere placards to trick our brains into waiting. They are physical reminders of God’s real and active work in our hearts by faith. They intentionally contribute to our anticipation of being united with him in glory. Farman notes that oftentimes, we hate waiting because we fear that waiting is all there is (12). As Christians, we know this is not the case. Every moment is ordained by our Creator. Nothing is wasted. And our wait is not in vain.
Back at the social security office, my son made some friends. He met a kind man who gave him two keychains to play with. He giggled at some older ladies who remembered their grandsons. He learned that even grown-ups need to wait our turn. He learned that he didn’t need to sit next to anyone who wanted him to. He saw people of all ages, stages, shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities, more than what he usually sees at church. There were valuable experiences in that three hour wait. I’m not eager to do it again by any means, but perhaps when the time comes, I’ll see it as Farman recommends: not a chore to complete, but an art to practice.
Sherrene DeLong (MATS, Westminster Seminary California) is working on a PhD in higher education at Azusa Pacific University. She is a contributor to All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church and has written a chapter titled “A Hospitality of Words” in the forthcoming second edition of Heal Us Emmanuel. She lives in Virginia with her husband and son, and they attend Christ Church PCA in Arlington.