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February 23, 2013 / playforth

Hope deferred maketh the something sick*

*Spoken by Vladimir in ‘Waiting for Godot’, Act 1 (paraphrasing Proverbs 13:12)

Please Wait by Martin Deutsch on Flickr

I’ve been thinking about what it means to wait, lately. In my writing life there’s a lot of waiting between entering competitions/submitting to magazines and the time when I find out if I’ve been placed/had work accepted. Almost always the news is bad (or more accurately there is no news, which is the same as bad news). In my personal life I’m currently waiting for the purchase of my first home to go through, which is a whole new order of anxious anticipation. And in my work life there is a constant (if less proximate) uncertainty about the future.

When all of these types of waiting converged recently I started to feel slightly crazy, and being a librarian/nerd I decided to head for the academic literature (well Google Scholar) to see if there was any psychology behind the state of waiting for news that could help me understand what I was going through (or at least massively distract me from the lack of phones ringing or emails arriving).

There’s quite a bit in the medical journals about a) waiting times for surgery/treatment and b) waiting in waiting rooms, and how they affect patients and the reputation of health services, but luckily none of the waiting I am doing at the moment falls into this category. There’s also a whole literature about the expectation or anticipation of pain and how this can affect behaviour, which does somewhat tie in to behaviour when waiting for bad news. Getting closer. I eventually found a fascinating book by sociologist Douglas W. Maynard, Bad news, good news: conversational order in everyday talk and clinical settings. Maynard describes the ‘interruptive and sometimes utterly disruptive feature of getting and giving news’ (bad or good) which represents a breakdown in the taken-for-granted everyday world (p. 4). This is why people have what’s known as ‘flashbulb memories’ of major life events (whether personal or public) meaning they can vividly recall the circumstances in which they heard the news.

But what about the condition of waiting for news, Douglas? Ah yes it turns out that in phenomenological terms, I’m going through a ‘noetic crisis’. This means that as the anticipation of expected news becomes acute, I experience cognitive disorientation and am unable to assemble sensory impressions (‘noemata’) into a coherent object. In other words, stuff gets weird. Clock time may appear to contract or expand, many alternative scenarios (or ‘imaginative rehearsals’) may rush through my mind, I may hear phantom phones ringing, feel suspended in time, or feel detached from reality as though watching a film. Basically I experience the world as unreal and indeterminate until the other shoe drops and I receive the awaited news.

You could I think read Waiting for Godot as the ultimate dramatic expression of this kind of thing, if you were so inclined.  It certainly explains why I’m not very productive at the moment. To quote Beckett again, there’s nothing to be done, except go back to obsessively checking my email.

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2 Comments

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  1. Tom Roper / Feb 25 2013 10:02 am

    Did you search PscyINFO? I found this:
    Waiting well: Tips for navigating painful uncertainty.
    Author(s) Sweeny, Kate
    Citation: Social and Personality Psychology Compass, March 2012, vol./is. 6/3(258-269), 1751-9004 (Mar 2012)
    From the abstract: Waiting for uncertain news can be a source of anxiety and distraction. This paper explores the experience of waiting for news that is both uncertain and unchangeable and provides tips for waiting well under these circumstances. During difficult waiting periods people can mitigate anxiety, reduce disruptive rumination, and minimize later harm by (1) distracting themselves from their uncertainty, (2) managing their expectations, (3) looking for the silver lining in all outcomes, (4) keeping perspective regarding the news, and (5) planning ahead for the objective and psychological consequences of bad news
    Subject headings:
    *Anxiety
    *Coping Behavior
    *Uncertainty
    Distraction
    Rumination (Cognitive Process

    • playforth / Feb 25 2013 10:21 am

      That looks excellent and helpful, thanks Tom!

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