Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


The Waiting Game

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A faraway friend has shipped me a box that’s very large, very light, and (I’m told) very fragile. I’m dying of curiosity, and sometimes I’m tempted to give it a good shake, but I have another week to wait.

To be honest, I’m actually enjoying the waiting and wondering. Anticipation has a nice edge to it, and in these times of immediate satisfaction on so many fronts, I’m taking a minute to appreciate it. Some things are not about speed and efficiency. Some things require you to wait for them to present themselves in all their glory.

The big box has a lot in common with the many books that make their way into my house every year. I know from the dust jacket or the reputation of the writer that I want to read it. I feel tempted by the promise of something good.

I admit to being more impulsive about opening books—I’ll read in the bookstore line-up or while my car is getting gas. But still, that quality of anticipation is a big part of the reading experience. After all, you can’t read a book in an instant—and the pleasure comes not only from the confidence that the writer is going to give you your just reward in the end, but also from extending the period of play in that created world. It’s not simply anticipation of the ultimate release, but pleasure in the period of waiting.

The same is true of dance, film, music—any of the art forms which request sustained attention over a period of time. It’s also true for paintings, photographs, and very short language forms like haiku. They might feel instantaneous, but the great ones travel with you for hours, days, even years, teasing and rewarding.

In a way, delayed gratification is at the heart of all the art forms, no matter what discipline. Whether they’re creating poems or documentaries or improvised jazz solos, artists are setting expectations in us, then making us wait until they are satisfied.

In the late 1960s, a researcher named Walter Mischel offered preschoolers a choice: they could get one marshmallow right now or more marshmallows later. Some kids couldn’t wait for a second, while others managed to get through the very long fifteen minutes. The most resourceful kids found strategies to soften the discomfort of waiting for their prize. They redirected their attention with wildly imaginative games, often using the marshmallows as props. Delay became their excuse to play, and play helped them manage their desire and maximize their pleasure.

Interestingly, the most successful kids in the Marshmallow Experiment have gone on to dramatically better lives with higher educational accomplishments, stronger social networks, less drug use, and so on. That’s a pretty clear indication that being able to sustain and even transform delayed gratification is an adaptive life skill, one we might want to develop in our children and ourselves.

I’m looking to the artists for lessons and inspiration. After all, they make an art of it…

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