Does anyone out there like waiting? I can’t see you, but I’m guessing no hands are going up. Unless, of course, you confused waiting with procrastinating. That practice tends to have a few more fans. Waiting is different because it usually implies that you would rather not be waiting, but that for some external reason you have either chosen or been forced to sit tight. Some waits are brief, others seem to drag on indefinitely, often correlating to how badly you want the waiting to end. Nothing, however, can make a wait seem like an eternity more than the factor of uncertainty.
As human beings, we spend a lot of time making plans. Most the time, we go about our day executing on those plans, feeling in control of our lives. When something happens that throws a curveball into the equation, (depending on what it is) we usually get irritated. A flat tire, missed train, or drained phone battery throw all the dominos into chaos, and depending on how mindful we’re feeling that day, we might internally go with them. There was a plan, darn it, and it was a good one. We course correct and move on, but not without some level of frustration. I don’t think that most people, if asked, would tell you that they always expect things to go their way, but it is funny how when little things don’t, we’re thrown for a loop. Big things may be different, but our days are full of little certainties we take for granted.
Planning is a normal, and necessary, part of life. It gives us comfort to be able to put bookmarks on the future. So, what happens when we can’t do that, and we have to wait? When we want very much to be planning, but the information we need to do so just isn’t available to us? The discomfort that sense of uncertainty can create, especially when layered with hope or fear, is powerful. We may vacillate from anxiety to apprehension to hopefulness and back again. We feel tortured…but who’s really doing the torturing?
Even if you think you aren’t, you’re a great storyteller. As part of our evolutionary make-up, we humans dislike uncertainty. From a survival standpoint, it’s potentially unsafe. To address this, when faced with an uncertain situation, we start mentally filling in the gaps. We envision multiple scenarios, with priority going to the worst case ones, to prepare us for a possible threat. Except, in our modern lives, those “threats” are often bad news or an unfavorable outcome, instead of a predator lurking in the darkness. Tell that to your cortisol levels, though. As you spiral forward envisioning the worst, they are spiking like you’re about to have to run for your life. Meanwhile, what’s actually happening? Nothing. Nothing at all. You’re waiting, for an outcome that may or may not work out in your favor. You don’t know, because you don’t have any control over it…and there it is.
Lack of control is a big deal for us, mainly because we spend our days thinking we’re in control. In truth, life is full of uncertainty all day long. You never know what’s about to happen (and it could well exceed your happiest expectations, by the way!). Mindfulness reminds us that all we truly know and have is the present moment. Right here, wherever you are, doing what you’re doing in this moment, with the people you are with right now. While important, there’s a fine line between planning and catastrophizing. Plans are made with information. Worst case scenarios can be considered, if best case scenarios are on the table as well. But, neither should be dwelled upon constantly, at the exclusion of the here and now. This moment is guaranteed, you can see exactly what it is, and better yet, with mindfulness, you can find peace in it.
When the future becomes the now, whatever it may hold, you will be present in that moment as well. As I’m sure you know from experience, those worst case scenarios we imagine are often much juicier than reality ends up being once we’re there. We’re so sure that we know, and then it turns out that we didn’t. The thing to remember is that we can’t control every single circumstance of our lives, but how we choose to respond to them and use our time – waiting or not – is up to us.
“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” – Eckhart Tolle
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire