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Active Waiting Can Get You Through Hard Times

A few years ago, we had to take down a tree that was leaning perilously over our fence and driveway. The people who took down the tree didn’t do a great job, leaving an unsightly stump. That stump, which was initially a sore reminder of our difficult decision to cut down a tree, has turned out to be a surprising gift.

Just a few months after losing the tree and gaining a stump, I noticed a bright green shoot growing straight up out of the stump. It looked so silly that it actually made me laugh. All spring and summer I watched the shoot stretch and grow. It even threw a little party that fall, its leaves turning a brilliant yellow before they dropped. “A parting gift from the tree,” I thought.

Yet each year since, that little shoot sprouting from our stump has persisted. A reminder that life can and will go on. It gives me hope that even you and I will spring back from blows that feel as sharp and painful as the saws must have felt to our tree.

What’s the secret to weathering a tough time?

My little shoot is teaching me that it is knowing how to wait.

Two Kinds of Waiting

Most of us tend to associate waiting with passivity – such as when we’re waiting for a ride to pick us up or waiting for a doctor’s appointment. This kind of waiting involves doing nothing other than trying to distract ourselves from the fact that we are waiting – by playing Words With Friends or scrolling through Instagram, for example.

The waiting that I’m talking about is quite different. Waiting in a way that helps you navigate a tough time is active, accepting, mindful and filled with a quiet hope.

Let’s take a look at each of these qualities:

Active and Accepting Waiting

To actively wait, we must accept our current reality, whatever it is. We must embrace what is happening and acknowledge that life does, at times, take turns we would prefer to avoid. Then we must actively join or participate in it. We must walk the walk.

Using my little shoot as an example, the tree had to accept that it had been cut down. It could not waste energy wishing it was still standing tall. It had to embrace its stump-ness in order to see the possibilities available to it in its new state.

Mindful Waiting

To mindfully wait, we must stay engaged with our waiting. We must stay curious about how we’re feeling, how we’re changing and what we’re learning. We must stay watchful – noticing little inner shifts, paying keen attention so we are prepared to take our next (perhaps tiny) step when the time is right.

Turning again to my shoot, the astounding regenerative energy it must have taken to send up that shoot didn’t come from nowhere. The tree had to re-group, adjust, understand its new self before it could marshal the energy for its almost miraculous come-back.

Hopeful Waiting

Finally, and most importantly, waiting that is powerful enough to create real transformation is based on the solid ground of hope. Henri Nouwen says this kind of waiting is “a radical attitude toward life. It is choosing to hope that something is happening for us that is far beyond our own imaginings.” (Henri Nouwen Society, A Reflection for the First Sunday in Advent, 11/29/2020) Waiting like this requires us to give up control of our future (which we never actually had anyway) and allow life itself to chart our course.

Turning back to my little shoot, the tree had to release its ideas of what a good or perfect life would look like – twigs and branches swaying in the wind high above my home. Instead, it had to accept its new form and ponder its new possibilities. It had to gather its energy (which can take a little time, by the way) and pour itself into a new kind of life and a new kind of growth.

Speaking as one who has been watching, it has done an admirable job – one we can in fact emulate. You and I can, like my little shoot, take a similarly hopeful stance whenever life offers us challenges. We can take a breath and actively (acceptingly, mindfully, and hopefully) wait. Trusting as we wait that, one day, we will feel a little quiver of inspiration to once again begin to stretch and grow.

If you’re struggling with a challenge this might be a good time to explore individual or group spiritual direction. Turning inward to connect with your spirit is restorative and inspiring.