Waiting to learn results of a decision you believe will decide your destiny is the emotional equivalent of having an itch in your shoulder blade right below where you can reach.
If it goes on long enough, it can make a sensible person abject and send the fragile howling into the night.
Think about the last time you felt as if your life was entirely in the hands of another: an institution, a group of experts or even simply one other person.
Wasn’t it (almost) impossibly hard to wait for that letter, that phone call, that email or text? Wouldn’t you (almost) have relinquished the possibility of getting what you wanted just so that you could know the answer, whatever it might be, without having to wait any longer? Wouldn’t you have (almost) pawned your desire just to lessen the anxiety of not knowing?
Isn’t that a little scary? But it might be sort of the same idea behind scratching an itch: According to scientific studies done at Wake Forest University, human beings might replace the sensation of itching with the pain of the scratching because scratching suppresses the emotional components of itch and by doing so offers a kind of relief. Your brain knows how to read pain; it doesn’t know how to read the itch.
Therefore, it doesn’t much matter what set of results you’re waiting for; it’s the act of waiting that’s hard.
When I was growing up, they told us that such trials “build character,” as if “character” is a kind of crusty coral reef. It never sounded particularly attractive. Plus it always seemed like the people who really needed character – the charming, the spoiled, the pampered and the privileged – didn’t have nearly enough opportunity to build their character, while the rest of us seemed to get it weekly. My neighborhood (hell, my immediate family) had character enough for entire villages in higher tax brackets. We were, I believe it could be said, lousy with character.
I used to worry all the time about grades, dates, jobs and what would happen next. My father, who was a waist gunner in a B-24 at the end of World War II, would shrug and tell me, “Man makes plans and God laughs.”
He knew that not every decision was one for which you could plan.
In life, we wait for different results at different stages. As a very young person, you’re waiting to find out if you passed your tests, got a date to the prom, got an internship, got into college, got a job for the summer or, perhaps, got a lenient parole office.
And it is as a young person that you will discover your signature waiting habits. This is why the grown-ups around you will try to help you calm down, dissuading you from indulging in emotional meltdowns, the throwing of breakable items against indoor surfaces and attempting to get in touch with other young people at all hours in order to “vent.” None of these practices will assist you to become a more likeable, inventive, interesting, attractive or employable individual, in which case you will remain living with those grown-ups mentioned above – the ones invested in helping develop your character.
Here’s the catch: It doesn’t actually get easier when you’re older and waiting to find out whether you got a job, got a job with benefits, got into graduate school, got into graduate school with benefits, got a partner, got a partner with benefits. The process continues.
When your child is sick, you hold your breath until you become dizzy from lack of oxygen. Not until he or she is breathing easily do you allow yourself to exhale and gulp in air as if you’d been underwater.
When you wait for the tests to come back telling you whether you or someone you love is merely under the weather or experiencing internal global warming, it’s good to have some of that character stuff.
When we’re waiting, we feel conspicuous, as if we’re the only one in the whole world who doesn’t know what’s coming next.
But there’s no one decision that maps our future. Even a change in plans is not necessarily a defeat; it’s a detour.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.