James E. Walsh, the Maryknoll bishop who spent 12 years under house arrest in China, is credited with saying that anyone with half a brain knows that over 50 percent of one’s life is spent waiting. Maryknoll Father Larry Lewis reminded Maryknoll lay missioners at a training session that the church acknowledges waiting with a whole season—Advent.
For a society that sees having to wait as an annoyance to be avoided, it is curious that such a state is both an ever-present reality and one that is celebrated.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reached a new stage in the different places where Maryknoll lay missioners live—in Brazil, Bolivia, Haiti, El Salvador, Cambodia, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and at the U.S.-Mexico border. Testing is not possible in many of these places, and we recognize the reality: There are many people infected, more than we can and will possibly know.
What now? Many of us are trying out new technologies to stay socially connected, to continue life with some semblance of normalcy. We’re dusting off our to-do lists and unearthing those “not urgent but important” items. We’re starting new projects, trying out new routines, doing our best to spend our time well.
And that, I suppose, is the danger when it comes to potentially rich, fruitful periods of waiting, i.e., the temptation to become or make oneself busy.
It is a temptation I know well. Rarely do I find myself without a book in a waiting room, on a bus or during any of those in-between times—times of transition from one thing to the next.
“Busyness,” Thomas Merton said, is “the biggest disease in North America.” These days, I imagine, the “disease” is rampant.
Cambodians are accustomed to waiting. They waited 90 years for the French colonizers to leave the country; 20 for the Americans to give up their war in Vietnam and cease bombing Cambodia; four for the Khmer Rouge to be overthrown; 10 for the Vietnamese occupiers to make their exit; and have been waiting 35 for their current leader to pass on the torch.
Cambodians know how to wait.
But what of waiting? Is it necessarily negative?
The French during their time of colonization in Southeast Asia are said to have summed up the cultural differences between their colonies like this: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice grow, the Lao listen to the rice grow.”
While this statement was not meant to be flattering for Cambodians, it should be noted: watching rice growing carries with it the hope for a fruitful harvest. When the time comes, the Cambodians will ready their oxen, take up their yolk, and gather the stalks. These will be threshed and sifted to make the most essential component of the Cambodian diet: rice.
There is a time to wait. And a time to harvest. The latter requires the former.
What is my rice? What is your rice?
So my hope—for me and for you—is that we start savoring that 50 percent of our lives as a time of waiting, where ambiguity mingles with hope, vigilance with expectation.
Photos by JK Reimer