Living in London has sparked some interesting and hilarious discussions with my English friends about British vs. American ways of, as they say, “queuing,” and, as I say, “waiting in line.”
It’s also made me think about simply waiting in line as an ideal opportunity to practice mindfulness. I’ve never been someone who likes to wait—but the challenge of remaining present while waiting in line can be a valuable experience, even a transformative one.
In the United Kingdom, a queue is a remarkable thing to see. Watching people form orderly lines for bus stops or patiently waiting as someone explains his life story to the clerk at the Waitrose check-out line is, for a recently transported New Yorker, strange and wonderful. I often think of this when I’m holding for a customer service agent who, I often suspect, is trained to keep me on hold until I give up, or if I do stay on the line, to tell me nothing.
Of course, if I simply remember that the person on the other end of the line is an actual human being, with a family to feed and a job to do, the whole situation shifts. My attitude is transformed and, in turn, the agent becomes more receptive. The experience is no longer frustrating and dispiriting, but actually illuminating.
When I first arrived in London, I went to a pet store to buy new ID tags for my cat. The woman helping me could not get the tag machine to work. She was the only one working at the store, and I had a few people behind me waiting to buy single cans of pet food after a workday. My Manhattan panic set in; I kept looking behind me, wondering when I would get booed out of line, like some unfortunate soul who made the mistake of holding up the line in a New York deli between 12 and 2 p.m.
Still, the kind woman at the pet store couldn’t get the machine to engrave the small tag I’d selected.
To my surprise, she asked for my help. I stepped behind the counter. (Another thing that would not happen in New York—we have trust issues.) As we both fiddled with the engraving machine, and the queue grew longer, my anxiety mounted. When I could no longer take the agony of the inevitable stares, I said it was okay, that I would find a tag elsewhere.
However, apparently the leering was all in my head, as they not only barely seemed to notice, but actually smiled as they waved me back to my task. Perhaps they didn’t just see someone in the way of getting to their next stop. They saw a foreigner trying to get a new tag for her cat. We never did get that machine to work.
I bought a tag—ahem—on Amazon. Nevertheless, I was touched. It was a small moment, but an instructive one, and the other customers’ empathy has stayed with me.
Funnily enough, since then I have made several friends while waiting in line. I’ve also been moved to emulate their example. From giving up my table at a concert the other day, to missing my train to help with someone’s bags on the tube, it’s always amazing how tiny little acts of kindness reverberate and inspire.
Waiting in line can be a tedious experience. It can also be an opportunity to be mindful, an excuse to dream, or a chance to meet new and interesting people.
It’s okay if I didn’t get every project or errand done today, and who knows, if I missed that train, maybe it happened for a cool reason that I’ll soon find out. Or, if I can look away from my Instagram feed for just a moment, I might find the space to daydream, or just take a few moments to breathe fully for the first time all day.
As David Foster Wallace described in his brilliant Kenyon College commencement address:
“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
Waiting in line is a powerful metaphor for what we might think is just in-between space but actually ends up being those millions of little moments that make up our lives.
While I’m not saying that it would be a spiritual experience to spend a lifetime waiting at the post office, I am saying that ultimately, there is no “getting there.” There is no point at which things solidify and get certain, and it’s finally time to be happy, right after I accomplish this or get that.
The key to life is to give it meaning, now, and to choose love and joy, now.
In fact, the only thing we can be certain of is that nothing is certain, and the best we can do is to be ourselves, accept things as they are, and know that we are all beautifully imperfect, and that everyone is worthy just as they are, right now.
It’s like waiting for everything to “come together” before we can be happy, riding out the days until we hit this milestone or reach that goal, or striving for that one thing we can never reach: perfection. We just end up waiting in line and thinking that once we get to the front, all will be well.
Instead, there is always going to be another line, or something unexpected will happen, or we will wake up one day and realize the “success” we seek isn’t what we truly want, or that we kept waiting for things to be perfect and now realize that we actually missed out on the love, belonging, connection, and meaning that was standing right next to us in that line we couldn’t wait to get out of. So, we can choose to just wait to get out of line. Or we can choose something else.
It’s up to us.
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Assist Ed: Michelle Margaret/Ed: Bryonie Wise