The Evolution of Waiting

How Westerners Fail at the Waiting Game

Hele Auer@Unsplash

So now we wait.

Yes, we’ve already waited ten whole months, but now we have to wait even more to get the vaccine that will save us from Covid-19 and break us out of this time of suspended animation.

But why is it so hard to wait?

We should be used to waiting; we do it all the time as we wait for the bus, a companion to show up, at the doctor’s office, a baby to be born, a text message to arrive. Every day has moments of waiting, but even so, those of us in Western culture don’t weather this pervasive fact of life very well.

Perhaps it’s because humans are evolutionarily designed as social creatures and all this waiting, especially alone and inside, is making us nuts because it’s not “natural” for our kind. After all, our ancient ancestors lived in small inter-dependent bands made up of relatives and well-known others. These groups hunted and gathered together, procuring food for everyone. Each group was also an entertainment module, talking through the day, sleeping close by, and helping each other with childcare. Of course, sometimes they met up with other small groups and exchanged food, gifts, and members, making for a larger social grouping. But overall, these small nomadic bands were safe and secure networks that fostered the success of the human species.

But even in those tightly knit and highly social bands, there was, and is, lots of time for waiting.

Hunting, for example, requires hours of downtime. Hunting is mostly walking and waiting, as the old ethnographic film, The Hunters, shows. For days, those guys walked across the savannah following a slow-moving giraffe; they were simply waiting and waiting for their poison arrows to fell the prey so they could chop it up and lug it back to camp. The film also shows that the hunters do their business mostly in silence. When women gather, they too walk and stop, walk and stop, sometimes talking a little as they go. And when everyone is back at camp, they sit and talk or sit in silence, waiting for the next day and the need to find more food.

Research on hunters and gatherers shows that this type of subsistence is actually pretty chill; it means spending little time looking for food and lots of leisure time to spend, well, waiting around. And in many other cultures, people are also content to hunker down and just watch life go by for a while. Those who live by small plot agriculture work hard, but they, too, have downtime as crops grow. Nomadic herders need to tend their animals, but that occupation is often done alone, quietly, and with great patience, as the animals graze.

But in Western culture, we have little patience for the patience it takes to wait. Instead, we abhor waiting as an unnatural state, as lost time, because our lives are usually so chock full of busyness. We never wait quietly, or patiently; we become frustrated and angry when told to wait. Faced with some period of forced standstill, we check our phones, read a book, shop, wiggle about, complain out loud and feel like this period of quiet waiting is an afront to our oh-so-busy (and read “important”) lives. Waiting is considered the time between real life rather than part of real life. Throughout this period of being sequestered, we distract ourselves with home projects, hobbies, work, and TV, because simply waiting it out brings on a sense of jittery impatience and we have had to rely on apps and YouTube to teach us how to calm down, breathe, clear our minds, and relax because being patient is foreign to us.

But it’s not so much that the world is out of sorts. It’s just that we are sadly disconnected from who we really are. Waiting takes patience, and Westerners are no longer any good at patience.

Anthropologist and author of Our Babies Ourselves, magazine articles, and Inventing the World: Venice and the Tranformation of Western Civilization (Dec ‘20).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store