This morning I am thinking about waiting.
Time heals all wounds, we’re told, and it doesn’t. That’s a lie. Not all wounds heal. The implication that we don’t need to do anything actively to heal the wound is often a lie, as well. But it is true that wounds that can heal, will heal with time. I’ve always liked when I see this metaphor taken to completion and the healing described as full medical wound care, because wounds need treatment: once you have cleaned a wound, and applied first aid, and assuming there aren’t deeper complications in the wound and the damage done by the original wound isn’t critical — THEN time heals all wounds.
That doesn’t have the same pithy brevity, though. Too bad: because what could be a valuable piece of advice about patience and waiting and allowing things to happen, rather than going out and forcing them to happen, is somewhat ruined by — well, by impatience, by the need to keep the truism short and to the point. Four words sound good; forty tell the truth; we generally pick the four. It’s faster. Easier.
And, often, false.
Waiting is one of the best things to be good at. One of the hardest things for a new teacher to master is wait time: when you ask a question, you have to stop and give your students time to come up with the answer. It’s hard, because of course you as the teacher already know the answer, so in your brain, the necessary wait time is zero, and there you are, staring out across this room full of blank faces, thinking, “Come on, how do you not know this? It’s hyperbole, for god’s sake! Everyone knows what hyperbole is!” And if no one comes up with it immediately, you turn into that annoying kid who blurts out all the answers. It’s unfair, and it’s not good teaching — but it feels good, because first of all, you know all the answers (Maybe the hardest thing about teaching well is learning to not need to be the smartest person in the room.) and secondly, it’s so awkward, sitting there in a silent room while nobody is saying anything! If you just give the answers right after the questions, then everything moves forward, quick and smooth and easy.
And without learning.
Learning to resist that urge, learning to wait, is extremely difficult. Took me years. It took me enough instances of saying the answer just to have a student say, “I was just going to say that!” and feeling guilty for cutting the student off, and enough instances of recognizing how great it is when they come up with the answer themselves instead of me saying it, to learn to wait for someone to answer. It has made quite a difference in my teaching.
Now, of course, I have also learned to enjoy their (slight) discomfort. I like making them wait in silence. I like making them feel the need to fill that void with something, anything, at least a guess. I like asking hard questions, and watching them have to stop and think. I especially like staggering a smart student, one who is rolling along, doing great, smashing every question out of their way like a marathoner going through those ribbons at the end of the race — and then I ask something that needs more thought, and they have to come to a halt to consider. I like to be the wall the marathoner bounces off of. I love that. (I love it even more when, after a five- or ten- or even twenty-second pause, that same kid comes up with the answer. That’s the best thing.) I might love it too much: I am well known among my students for refusing to give them answers, ever. I’ll ask a difficult question — why does the author make this choice instead of this other choice — and then they try a few thoughts, and we discuss it and those thoughts don’t work; then a pause, then they try another, and it doesn’t work either. Then somebody says, “Well, will you tell us why?” And my response is generally, “Oh, I’ll never tell you. You’ll figure it out, or you won’t know.” They groan. I grin.
But the point is, the waiting is the key. Time may not heal all wounds, but time is a necessary component of any change: from unprepared to prepared, from sad to happy, from good to great. It is rarely, in my experience, the only component; I think effort is probably equal in almost anything, and also thought — but time is necessary. Patience is necessary.
I’m still learning that. I’m 44, soon to be 45, and I’m still unpublished. (I am traditional enough to think that self-publishing doesn’t count. It does. But it isn’t what I really want, what I really really want, therefore…*) I think my writing has improved, but I haven’t reached my goal. It is not easy to deal with. Ten years ago I blamed everything on callow agents and a heartless publishing industry that just wouldn’t recognize my talent; now I tend to blame myself for not being good enough, for not having the right ideas. But in either case, I still don’t have what I want, and it hurts. It hurts all the time. It bothers me every time I see someone younger than me publishing books. It feels a little better when I see those posts and memes that list the ages of successful artists and authors who were older when they had their first breakthrough; but I’m starting to move into the middle of that pack, too. I saw on Twitter yesterday where someone was trying to give this kind of affirmation, and said, “I didn’t publish my first book until I was 38. Now I’m contracted for my tenth.” And I thought, Shit.
I also don’t always wait and think things through, especially about the effects of my words. I like to just type and go, hit Post, Reply, Send; I like doing that fast. It was a problem when I argued online regularly; now I do that less, but I still have the same problem. And it is a problem, not just because I often misspeak when I do that; it also means I don’t realize the effect of everything I am about to say before I say it, and so I do things to people that I don’t mean or want to do. I make them angry or I make them sad, or I make them laugh and scoff at me, or I make them feel embarrassed or ashamed. And if I would just stop, and think, before I hit Send, and re-read what I wrote, then I would probably realize, “Oh, no, I shouldn’t say that, I shouldn’t say it that way.” And I’d fix it, and then I would prevent a problem that is caused by my own desire to hurry, my own inability to wait. But I hurry, and so I do harm, to someone else or to myself.
In other words, time may not heal all wounds: but impatience causes them.
Waiting is the key.
*Yes, that is a Spice Girls reference. Here, watch this: this will make it better.