I have been known to voice-text at stop lights, add reminders and calendar items during a 10-minute commute, and fill up silence with podcasts or at least an intentional discussion time with my children. Like so many others, I’m resourceful about turning wait times into productive times. It’s the American way.
Nowadays, it’s becoming something of a cliché to suggest that our society is in the throes of a technological addiction. Google, we say, is changing how we think; social media makes us lonely; there are support groups for iPhone addicts. We fumble in our pockets for our phones while we stand waiting in line at the grocery store. We catch up on news or send messages in the carpool pick-up lane. It’s become a reflex, a compulsive habit that’s rewiring not only our impulses but also our very desires. We don’t abide silence well. We may be losing the ability to wait.
But for media expert Jason Farman, this sort of chronic fidgetiness signals something other than a problem to be solved through technological improvements. His book, Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, argues that waiting has always been an important part of human connection. What can feel like a pointless hassle is actually something of precious value.
The Value of Waiting
To create and sustain human community, we’ve always had to travel a certain distance. That distance can be geographical, of course, but it can also be cultural, ideological, or emotional. Farman argues that throughout history, our varying communications tools—from the simplest to the most advanced—have shaped the relationship between sender and receiver in different ways. In other words, the time spent waiting for a message can be just as pregnant with meaning as the message itself. “Though the mythologies of the digital age continue to argue that we are eliminating waiting from daily life,” Farman writes, “we are actually putting it right at the center of how we connect with one another.”
The question, then and now, is: What will waiting produce in a culture? Is waiting a hurdle to overcome, in the service of maximizing our “productive” time, or does it have a value all its own?
Even something as small as our texting habits can offer an important window into our culture. We assign meaning to the space between sending and receiving messages. Waiting on a text can bring to the surface our social anxieties and desires for intimacy. It can reveal the tenuous fabric of digital connection. Waiting, then, isn’t simply blank space to do away with; it forms us in a deeper way than we tend to realize.
How so? To answer this question, Farman travels the globe, studying a variety of communications technologies, past and present—everything from Japanese youth text culture to intercepted Civil War letters, Elizabethan seals on letters, space signals, Aboriginal message sticks, and the pneumatic tubes that delivered mail under the streets of Paris and New York City. What all these modes of communicating have in common is that, in their heyday, they were cutting-edge technologies that created a new relationship to time—and specifically to waiting. They made it seem as though the world had gotten faster, which conditioned us to think of speed as an essential element of the good life.
Delayed Response is a wide-ranging study packed with historical detail and careful analysis. Still—and perhaps this is the armchair philosopher (or poet) in me speaking—I found myself wanting to know more about the impact these technologies have had on the human soul. What effect do progressively lower wait times have on our collective psyche? Why, when those intervals are relatively small and getting smaller, do we continue to seek out distractions, as though waiting were intolerable? What good is there in waiting, and can we recover a more holistic view of time in our age?
Farman does gesture toward these questions (especially in the final chapter), and this is where the book really shines. “Waiting is contrary to capitalism” is just one of many pithy observations that I wish he had done more to flesh out. Others include “Waiting is such a powerful part of our relationships … because that’s where imagination does its work”; “Waiting forces time to be visible”; and “Silence is content.”
Statements like these highlight the assumption in much of Western culture that waiting is a glitch in the system that further technological innovation is surely on its way to patching up. Underneath this assumption is a further assumption that achieving the good life is mainly a matter of using our time “productively.” In a highly mechanized, capitalist society, where individual ease and freedom from restraint is paramount, waiting is both a burden on the powerful and a reminder to the poor of their relative powerlessness. Yet those waiting times also help us create and store memory, give birth to creativity, and allow new neurological connections. They tell us something important about the nature and limits of embodied life.
Innovators and “Maintainers”
Impatience with waiting is nothing new. From the antsy Israelites who built a golden calf because they were tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, to the biblical cries of lament (“How long, O Lord?”) and calls for justice, to the early church’s and our own longing for the redemption of all things—we are a waiting people. Waiting ultimately reorients our stories: We are not the primary actor on a stage of our own making or choosing. Rather, God is the hero of the story. Will we be content to wait on his work? In these in-between times, what character will be formed in us as individuals and as a culture?
Technologies give us the illusion of god-like power and control: summoning up any piece of information with one simple click, purchasing anything with a quick swipe, and expecting others to operate around our own schedules. But they can’t overcome the limits of our creatureliness—and nor should we want them to. The created order—with its boundaries of time, space, and body—is not an imposition on our freedom but the life-giving water in which we swim. Limits are part of what makes us human. They show us more of who we are—creatures, not the Creator.
To fight against making all time “productive” time, we must learn (as Farman begins to suggest) to be “maintainers” as well as innovators: those who can see patterns between the past and the future and invite others in; those who can “choose a pace,” rather than feeling pulled along in a stream of ever-increasing hurry.
Ultimately, as Christians, our time is not our own. We have been bought with a price. May we glorify God through the natural limits of our time, attention, and body—and maybe put down the phone once in a while.
Ashley Hales is a writer living in Southern California. She is the author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (InterVarsity Press).