Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Waiting games

At dinner on our last night in Auckland, my friend J. passed along a trivia question she’d been asked by a shop owner earlier in the day: What’s the opening line of dialogue in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot?

The rest of us wracked our brains for a good five minutes before admitting defeat and asking for the answer. At some point during those five minutes I, who pride myself on being a fount of useless trivia, muttered in frustration, “I can’t believe I don’t know this. I’ve read that play at least three times for school….Man, I hate that play!”

This opinion sparked some additional discussion once we had learned that the answer – which is central both to the play’s theme and my feelings about it – is the phrase “Rien à faire”. (In English, this translates to “Nothing to be done.”) I know that Waiting for Godot is generally considered a masterpiece of modern theatre, and I had to give some thought to why my reaction to it is so visceral and negative, particularly since I probably haven’t looked at or thought about it since I graduated from college 20 years ago.

I’ve spent some time pondering this in the month since that dinner, and I think it comes down to the play’s central premise of waiting – and, by extension of the circumstances, of powerlessness. Even as an inexperienced high school and university student, I don’t think the play ever resonated with me as displaying a genuine understanding of powerlessness and what it feels like, and my experiences and perceptions of adulthood have served only to reinforce that opinion.

The fundamental factor underlying my opinion is that I absolutely loathe waiting, because of those feelings of powerlessness it engenders. I don’t imagine anyone actually enjoys waiting, but my experience has been that some people are better than others at letting go of things they can’t control when they’re waiting for something. That is not something I do with any level of ease or patience, and, particularly when I’m waiting for a resolution that is under someone else’s control, I also often have to grapple with the frustration of feeling that I have had some level of responsibility for contributing to the outcome, without any real authority to determine what it will actually be.

I’ve spent the last month waiting for a) DP to return from his latest hazardous overseas sojourn; b) some resolution (or even forward movement) on a possible new work project; and c) the end of the most contentious US presidential election campaign I can remember. I’ve had a lot of time to think about feeling powerless and how to cope with that. The thing that works best for me – in fact, pretty much the only thing that works for me – is to remove my attention, as much as I can, from the fruitless mental wheel-spinning that is the hallmark of waiting (to say nothing of the elaborate worst-case scenario projection), and focus it on something – anything! – that I can actually accomplish, no matter how small or simple, to give me some feeling of control over my circumstances. So a piece of literature that focuses on all the most frustrating and upsetting parts of waiting, with no mitigation or resolution, is probably not the one for me.

Well, DP is safely home, so that’s one less thing I’m waiting for. And we’re down to the last 24 hours of the presidential election, so…stay tuned.


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