Waiting on the New Thing Coming

“See, I am Doing a New Thing! Now It Springs Up; Do You Not Perceive It?”

Mockingbird / 1.18.21

As we plug in all our new hopes for a new year, and wait for them to materialize, here’s Ethan’s timely (ha) essay from the Future Issue.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Is 43:19)

“Hurry up and wait,” my dad has been known to grumble. “That’s all life is.” He loves that one. Usually it’s about an unexpected traffic delay, or a client that doesn’t show up on time, or ironically, a fast food line. Each time he says it with new consternation and bafflement: a discovery of yet more proof that our lot on earth is not far from the cattle in the feedlot. “Hurry up and wait…sheesh!”  

It’s dour, but if you think about it, it’s true. Sometimes all it takes is one extra minute in line at Chipotle. You look up at all the phone-gawkers behind and before you, and you realize that you have all arrived from your myriad cubicles and gyms and classrooms at this one checkpoint, a feeding station. You wait for your sustenance, you gobble up your portion, and you scramble on to the next checkpoint. They stretch on into the foreseeable future—with some today, some next week, others further out—but all of them must be hurried towards and waited for. For now, you just stand in line for your barbacoa bowl, you sigh a sigh, and you grumble to no one in particular, “Hurry up and wait…”  

Never have I felt both the pain of waiting and the sweetness of incremental busyness than in the last eight months with our first kid on the way. There’s this New Thing Coming—we cannot see it, or change it—but there are an infinite number of ways we can sort of see it, sort of change it, and sort of prepare for it. There are appointments to make and articles to read and accessories to buy. Ultimately, though, we still have to wait.  

One night this past week, as my wife and I took a short post-supper walk around the neighborhood, I was suddenly bombarded with terror. Thinking about the New Thing Coming, and all the related forks in the road we don’t even know we’re approaching, I started thinking about this enjoyable present and got panicky about how quickly it was slipping from us. We’ll never be able to do this again. Sure, we’ll do something very similar, and we’ll do a lot of it—and sure, just like everyone says, maybe this New Coming Thing will make it miles better than what we’re enjoying right now—but it won’t be the same. This exact walk will never happen again.  

No one wants to have these feelings. It’s much easier to deal with the present moment by anchoring yourself in the future tense. So you assemble some IKEA furniture, you paint some walls, you listen to birth story podcasts, even the harrowing ones where every anatomical nightmare comes true. In short, you plan, you distract. And most of all, you buy. You exchange an interminable wait for an uncontrollable future, for a more palatable one, with two-day shipping. You do the “hurry up” part, so as not to think about the “wait.” 

Obviously, it isn’t just nervous parents-to-be that are dispatching their future anxiety into Amazon orders. For each and every one of us there are two types of waiting: the existential and the transactional. While one makes no promises to offer any room for your preferences and expectations, the other thrives on accommodating them. While you may receive that long-awaited answer from God about your vocation, your future husband, the ultimate meaning of your life—you may not like the answer (nor the timeline) you receive. This is the opposite of your GrubHub order, which is made to your specifications and will arrive, piping hot, before your stomach’s changed its mind. It’s no wonder we trade the bigger waits for ones that ask us, “Do you want flatbread on the side?” 

Wait times are down in the 21st century, at least the transactional kind. More than ever, the stuff we’re waiting on has a delivery date, a tracking number, and the promise of free returns. The US Postal Service has even developed an “Informed Delivery” program, where you can see pictures of your package on its way to you, before it arrives on your doorstep. And, thanks to product reviewers like Wirecutter, you have a much smaller chance of buying a lemon. You can rest assured that that LCD TV you ordered not only has “full array local dimming,” but that it’s got the best full array local dimming money can buy, even if you still don’t know what that means. In today’s marketplace, the distance between what you expect to get and what you actually get is miraculously indistinguishable.  

So this easier form of waiting isn’t called transactional because we buy stuff; it’s a different kind of transaction. With these miniature waits, we are trading in our real life—filled with unknowable, uncontrollable, invasive variables—for another life, one where all the variables are knowable, controllable, and chosen by Y-O-U. 

All of these marketplace changes are happening very quickly, but it’s no coincidence that decreasing wait times have been followed by busier lives, not more leisurely ones. As Brigid Schulte wrote, the ping that comes from an email received or an order shipped might be an immediate pleasure, but it always leads us to new dissatisfactions, more loops to close, and the need for higher dosages: 

Neuroscientists have discovered that anticipating those electronic notifications triggers a sweet narcotic dopamine release in our brains much like any powerful addiction or craving. And when the text is short, the thought incomplete, or the message fragmented…the dopamine levels surge, rocketing through our systems, firing up the desire for more more more. 

Wait times are down, but we’re waiting—and waiting impatiently—more than ever before.  

***

My stepdad died of esophageal cancer this year. He was sick for over four years, and even though his decline at the end was surprisingly quick, my mom had been living a life underscored by the waiting for it. The caregiver’s role is onerous. Anxiety is a given. All along the way, there’s plenty of “hurry up” things to do: meals to make and appointments to attend, on top of learning all the household tasks you never had to do before, like power washing and gutter cleaning. And while these activities are in a way a solace, they are never enough to fully distract from the waiting. Even when good times came, when we celebrated a good PET scan or had a fun night out, it was harder for my mom to feel the relief we felt.  

My mom now has a new future to wait for. Her grief counselor likened it to a puzzle on the floor. She told her it was like missing enormous sections of your life—who she’d been, what she used to do. “Piece by piece, there will be new things to fill those sections, but it’s going to take time. You will have to wait.” She said, “You’re going to be anxious to pick up that puzzle and move it around, but everyone knows, you can’t pick up a puzzle.”  

Like me, my mom is waiting on her New Thing; it’s just not on her terms. And while there are things she can do—go to therapy, get lunch with friends, call her kids—the rate at which this New Thing comes is nothing like the day-to-day waiting we know. That can be frustrating, disappointing, and anxiety-producing.  

This is existential waiting, the elemental, sometimes excruciating wait for a future to unfold. These are the waits of hungry lovers and abject psalmists: “How long, O LORD? How long?” Whether you’re waiting on God, waiting on love, waiting for a break, waiting for the hits to quit coming, waiting for her to apologize, waiting for him to come home, waiting for a purpose, for an answer, for forgiveness, for a friend—this is the kind of waiting that does not come with a plan of action. These waits cannot be managed, and they aren’t good at matching expectations.  

And of course this makes us anxious. In a memoir about his lifelong struggle with anxiety, Atlantic editor Scott Stossel describes anxiety as a future-oriented emotion for a future-oriented animal:  

Humans have always and ever been anxious…As soon as the human brain became capable of apprehending the future, it became capable of being apprehensive about the future. The ability to plan, the ability to imagine the future—with those come the ability to worry, to dread the future. 

Reading between the lines here, we see that Stossel is talking about control, the control we lack when it comes to the futures we face. Anxiety comes from apprehending the distance between the future that can be planned for—and the one that can’t.  

The anxiety-control-waiting paradigm is pretty common in the Bible, and the equation is basically two-part. When our God-fearing biblical brethren of old faced an insoluble wait time, the pattern was such:  

Part One: You will implement several transactional methods to end your wait. Throughout the Bible, people choose to regain control by doing stuff. Rather than trust God’s chosen outcome, you will throw someone in a pit. Rather than surrender, you will draw the sword. Rather than taking the gifts as they are currently given, you will make ambitious plans for a new storage facility. None of this works, as it turns out, but you will keep trying. And your friends—if they’re anything like Job’s “comforters”—will also get into the game. “Have you tried online dating?” “Have you prayed about it?” If the biblical pattern is correct, in lieu of waiting, you will try to “be the change,” and nothing will change.  

Part Two: You will release your grip, resign yourself to waiting, and God will give a new future, one you asked for. Not! It would be nice if this were true, but if the Bible is any indication, man will never cease locking horns with his existential givens, and will never stop trying to intervene…until God breaks his fingers. So, too, with you. You will continue trying small, ameliorative shifts until the New Thing arrives, without much warning, and without your help. Just like the Lord told Moses, corralled by enemies on all sides, right before the parting of the Red Sea: “The LORD will fight for you, you need only be still.” Somehow, it will wind up being OK, though probably different from what you imagined. In the end, you may not get to settle in the Promised Land in the way you thought, and your travel companions will never really stop bothering you. And you may be “carried where you do not want to go,” but somehow, with God in charge, it’s better that way, and if you’re lucky, you will have realized that.  

 

There is a coda to the two above, and it’s woven into the whole of scripture: We tend to wait on the wrong thing. When we’re looking for the warrior on the white horse, we miss the lonesome lover on a donkey. Or as writer Leslie Jamison put it in a Paris Review interview,  

Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with the problem. I think surprise is an important part of grace. You thought you wanted cookies, but you really needed seltzer. Grace isn’t the thing you planned, it’s what you get instead.  

The New Thing we’re waiting on, more often than not, is very different from the New Thing we get. Thankfully, in his time, God grants it anyway.  

*** 

Back in the 1970s, in what was once the Judean desert, a 2,000-year-old seed was found at an archeological dig. It had somehow been preserved in a dry cleft of the silt bed. After it was unearthed, it sat forgotten in a lab desk drawer for thirty more years until 2005, when a scientist tried to plant it in some soil. It’s now the Methuselah Date Palm, a fully grown, ancient tree with dozens of new (but ancient) offspring. 

In this time of waiting on a baby, I have resonated in new ways with Jesus’ parable of the growing seed, the miracle that does what it does with zero intervention and zero proof. Jesus says that that’s how the Kingdom operates. It is so small you cannot see it, but it’s there, and it’s alive. It’s living while you wait, without you having to do anything to encourage it. It works even if you do everything in the world to destroy it. The seed lives in the dark and, from there, makes a New Thing.  

I have a friend, Laura Lee, who lives in Mississippi, whose wait is very different from ours. She’s in her mid-forties, she’s an award-winning teacher, and for as long as she can remember, she’s wanted kids of her own. Anyone who knows her would agree that she’d be the mom of the universe. Because of her own baggage, though—a lot of it stemming from childhood, some of it from God knows where—her relationships always seemed to fall apart. She’s been married and divorced. I have been friends with her in the midst of some of these relationships, and remember her saying that even if a relationship was going okay, she would eventually find herself just going numb, shutting off her feelings, and that would end it.  

Laura Lee was angry that God would let her continue to sabotage her own chances at love. What hurt her the most, though, was knowing that her vision—of being the wife with kids—was slipping with each burned-up relationship.  

So she decided to work on it, to get better. She went to therapy, she moved to a new city to get a fresh start, started attending a new church, and it all seemed to help. She met a great guy. When they had been together for four years, and she bought a house to fix up for future kids, we all thought that the puzzle pieces were coming together.  

Then it fell apart. Despite all her attempts to “fix” what was wrong with her, whatever needed fixing came rushing back, and the relationship slowly eroded. At that point, Laura Lee was at an age when even trying to have kids was risky, and with no one to share them with, she gave it up. She surrendered, just tried to accept it wasn’t going to happen. She left the new city and the house she fixed up, and went back to Mississippi. Going back to your hometown is often the definition of a dead end, but it didn’t matter; she just wanted to be home.  

It can sometimes be hard to know when the New Thing has arrived, especially when it looks so different from what you expected. As Leslie Jamison puts it, “The vending machine of grace is vast and it never gives you exactly what you asked for. And that means we have to pay attention, because we’re not always aware that grace has arrived.” 

Laura Lee wasn’t aware, but within a year of being home, she would be married and have a child. It was not how she would have planned it, and in fact, had she heard before how it was going to happen, she would have run in the opposite direction. Her husband’s name is Joe and she jokes that he’s old enough to be her granddad. She fell in love with him. And since they were both too old to have kids, they decided to become foster parents. They picked up a newborn baby boy from the hospital last March, and he is still with them today.  

I once joked with Laura Lee that she might only have a few years with Ancient Joe, but at least she got a kid out of it. She looked intently back at me, “If I have one year with him, it will be the best year of my life.” 

At the same time, it isn’t Hollywood; she still fights the miracle that’s taken root out of nowhere in her life. She told me about one night when she felt that deep numbness come back, the same hurt that ruined all the relationships before. It was the middle of the night and snowing outside, and she ran out of the house into the snow in the backyard. She said, “I was like a crazy person, but I just wanted to feel something. I started screaming at the stars, yelling at God to come help me.”  

This time, though, she was not alone. “Joe came out and put a coat on me,” she said. “He stood right beside me and started yelling at the stars, too. When I got all of this anger out, he was still there, and so was I, and suddenly I had my answer. I started weeping and just collapsed. And then he walked us back into our house.” 

It would be foolish to say that all of Laura Lee’s own transactional attempts to intervene were wrong-headed. All of us “hurry up and wait.” Some waits, though, no matter who you are, will continue to defy your timeline. And while you may have a good idea of what a New Thing ought to look like, it is buried in the dark, in a place you couldn’t even begin to apprehend.  

This is how a New Thing arrives in the Kingdom of God. It is a surprise, a tree which grew from an undetectable seed. You cannot see it now, and therefore you cannot help it along. It does not happen by eliminating the bad habits or optimizing the good ones. It happens in lieu of all your unfinished puzzles, harried Amazon purchases, and the accelerating number of loops you will try to close. It may not grant you your order, per se, in the color you prefer, with a generous return policy, but it does promise delivery. It will be a tree of life, offering a New Thing you didn’t even know you were waiting on.