I accept waiting cheerfully in many situations. If Big Corporation puts me on interminable hold, I doodle or paint on old book covers. An hour vanishes in a short-staffed dentist’s office when I have a notebook. Bank lines are an opportunity to invent backstories for the characters I am in line with.
However, if I must wait for a phone call, I cannot focus. Even with a doodle kit or art room nearby, I am unable to sit, draw, or write. I think only of the phone ringing so I can get on with my day.
Likewise, if the cable guy is due between two and four o’clock; I fret and pace from 1:55 to 4:05.
To understand why waiting is sometimes pleasant and other times misery-making, I charted some observations:
My discomfort arises from what my brain is up to while I wait. In any line, I expect my turn will come. I foresee closure and it limits my thinking. The certainty of getting what I need removes ambiguity. My brain does not like ambiguity.
Ambiguity feels infinite. Faced with the intangible, my thoughts spin and branch, weaving an anxious web. This internal turbulence is difficult to describe. I can best relate my perceptions with an analogy.
Imagine you are at the top of a tall building and must descend dozens of flights of stairs to exit. You walk and walk; flowing smoothly down. Your feet know where to go, so your mind is free to think about dinner or other amusements.
The lights suddenly go out. You might be surprised, but you recall how far down the next step is and keep moving.
Then you think, “When will I reach the landing?” and “How many steps until the next set of stairs?” You cannot walk down the stairs without considering where you are. How confident are you that you can count your steps and navigate the landings without second-guessing yourself? Your mind becomes consumed with step-taking.
In my dark descent into ambiguity, I count steps, hoping nothing unexpected happens. My universe permits new possibilities. The number of steps between landings can vary. Even the height of each step is impermanent. Processing the possibilities makes each step an anxious one.
Limits reduce anxiety. Thirty stories in darkness is easier down a continuous spiral staircase. One could even think about dinner again.
This insight helps on a cognitive level, but behaviorally–my mind needs bigger bait than doodles and journaling. I need something else to cope with open-ended waiting.