We spend much of our life waiting. We wait for someone. We wait for something.

We often wait. But, not all waits are made the same. Waiting for the train that we take every weekday morning is not the same as waiting for a friend to arrive. We know how long we have to wait for the train to arrive. At least approximately. We may not know when the friend will arrive if they are already late.

There are other times when the wait is longer. When you are waiting to receive the reviews for the first academic article you submitted to a conference or journal. When you wait for the approval of a visa application and don’t know whether it will be approved. We know how long we need to wait and yet, we are anxious.

In Agnès Varda’s film Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), we see Cléo wait 90 minutes1 for her medical test results. She suspects that she might have cancer. In the beginning, we see her wait anxiously. She asks the opinion of a tarot card reader, shops with her assistant, practices a song with a composer who comes to her apartment and has a superficial afternoon chat with her lover.

She does everything possible not to feel that she is waiting. When she is not occupied with others, she is occupied with herself. She is surrounded by mirrors. Just as mirrors in elevators in high rises make us feel that the wait is shorter, Cléo uses mirrors to distract herself. But then, she is frustrated with what she sees, until she does not need to see herself in the mirror.

Freedom from mirror, freedom from distraction. Now her wait has some stillness. This stillness gives her space to reflect on her life. From the object who is seen, she become the subject who sees. She opens herself up to others. While she is waiting in a park, she responds to a man. She usually doesn’t respond to men. She reflects on her life with this man. It is as if the act of waiting has transformed her into a different person. Big emotions are great to change our minds and attitude.

At the end of the film, she receives her test results. She is not anxious. She is not afraid. The fear is gone. She used to be afraid of everything. Birds, storms, elevators, needles. Now, she is not afraid that she has cancer.

We can learn about waiting from Cléo. First, from her attempts to stay occupied and to keep the feeling of wait at bay and then, from her stillness and reflection on life.

What do we do when we wait? We do a lot of things to avoid the stillness that waiting forces on us. We meddle with the phone. We plug in our headphones. We keep the world around us at bay and to let in another world. We prevent the possibility of reflection, as if stillness will force us to observe that we are changing. We are changing and that scares us2.

What if we open ourselves to the people around us as we wait? We are changing as we talk to people, as we listen, as we see the world. Waiting gives us the space to recognize who we were. To recognize that we are changing. To recognize how we are changing. Waiting gives the time to see the world around us, to see the sky as it changes colors.

Not all waits are like Cléo’s. Some are like that of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. They hope that Godot will turn up but “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” Waits have no end in sight. It feels like time is stretching. The wait feels longer even when it isn’t. We don’t feel in control. We imagine with existential anguish over what might be at the end of the anticipation, at the other side of waiting.

During COVID-19 pandemic, waiting is a daily experience for some and a life altering phase for many. From waiting to enter stores to waiting for visas to enter a country. From waiting to meet friends in person to waiting to get back to an earlier routine. Days, weeks and months go by and there is no end to waiting.

As we continue to wait, we could engage in pointless chatter like Vladimir and Estragon or we could attain some stillness like Cléo.

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…

– If, Rudyard Kipling

  1. The film runs from 5pm to 6:30pm. 5 to 7 is a joke. See Agnès Varda. Cléo from 5 to 7↩︎

  2. Anything in extreme is best avoided. The same applies to stillness. Sometimes we are waiting for something to happen and that something could be an action that breaks the stillness that has engulfed us.↩︎