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Learning to Wait

June 10, 2016
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Struggling with a blog post, circa 1961

We Brits – along with most other societies in the West, live in a world of speed. Speed reading, speed dating, high-speed internet, fast food. Even World War 3, when it breaks out, will be over in a matter of days, whereas the previous one took six years.

Now we are being prepared for fast golf. Contests lasting six holes and no more than an hour. The player has no more than 30 seconds to take the shot.

Well, a similar format seems to have worked for cricket. 20/20 is wildly popular – more so than the longer forms of the game. In most sports nowadays, the optimum length for any continual activity appears to be a maximum of two hours.

The promoters of golf are pushing the short format because the long version, in which a round of eighteen holes can take anything up to five hours, is losing its appeal. Club memberships are on the wane. People simply don’t have all that precious leisure time – or the money – to devote to the sport.

The same goes for cricket. People don’t have the time or patience to sit through a one-day match, let alone international matches lasting five days.

Or at least that’s what we’re being told. In order to hook the kids as participants rather than just spectators, we need a short version tailored to their limited attention span.

I disagree. We actually need to get kids into activities that develop their ability to concentrate for long periods.

I didn’t play golf when I was at school, but I did play cricket. A match lasting all afternoon and well into the evening was one of the joys of summer. Even better, when I got to play for my school’s first XI, we had matches that started at 11am, stopped for lunch, and carried on for the rest of the day. I felt like a proper cricketer, even if I didn’t play like one.

Another long-form recreation is fishing. I’ve never fished, but having the patience to sit for hours waiting for a tiddler to take the bait is surely good for the soul, even if it isn’t good for the fish that finally takes the bait. Fortunately, unless you build tanks full of ravenous piranhas, it’s difficult to see how a short form of fishing can evolve. So our kids can still sit at a river bank waiting for the bite that might never come. The opposite of instant gratification, and the priceless opportunity to sit and think.

Another highlight of my school days was visits to the theatre. My school was quite close to Stratford-upon-Avon. Two to three times a year, busloads of us would pitch up to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, to watch Hamlet, Twelfth Night and the history plays. Some of the plays lasted three hours, excluding the interval. And at the ages of eleven to thirteen, I’d sit through them, enthralled.

Very different to today, as the BBC showed recently when it deemed that its production of Midsummer Night’s Dream would not appeal to the average viewer if it lasted more than ninety minutes.

Think also of movies. Modern films mostly last for a maximum of two hours. Anything longer than that is so unusual that film reviewers make a point of warning us. Yet way back when, blockbusters like Ben Hur, How the West Was Won and the Fall of the Roman Empire were screened with an interval that let you stock up on popcorn and Smarties. Lawrence of Arabia ran for 231 minutes, and, before my time, Gone With the Wind was an epic 240 minutes – enough to test the most elastic bladders.

If a multiplex screened a movie today lasting nearly four hours, the cinema would probably need to issue a health warning about the dangers of deep-vein thrombosis and advise you to take an aspirin before entering the premises. And even then you probably wouldn’t get enough takers to make the whole thing commercially viable.

We all know the difference between now and then: TV, video, smart phones, the internet and any number of other sources of fun that involve little more than sitting down – usually for relatively short periods. Whereas most of us growing up in the fifties and sixties would, depending on our parents’ income, be on the streets playing football, in our gardens blowing up wasp nests, in the fields chasing rabbits or shrimping in rock pools on our seaside holidays. Apart from organised sport, books, homework, radio and illicit activities behind the bike shed, there was little else during the day to grab our attention.

Yes, kids can still play sports, and the other day I drove past our local cricket ground where hundreds of youngsters dressed in white were taking part in a cricket camp. But the state schools, encouraged by cash-strapped local authorities, have for the past decade been selling off their playing fields, thus creating an even wider gap between the public and private schools. Boarding schools like mine – set in hundreds of acres, with woodland, a river, numerous cricket, hockey and rugby pitches – are a world away from urban state schools that barely have enough land left for a playground.

If I go on about dumbed-down school curricula and exams that rely heavily on multiple choice – test of knowledge rather than critical thinking – you might dismiss me as a privileged old fart who probably wants his country to leave the European Union, and rants away about how wonderful “things used to be”.

So I won’t go on. In many respects “things” used to be pretty grim. Go into the fields and you might have been poisoned by DDT. Look in the skies and that little point of flame could have been a ballistic missile heading your way. Switch on the TV and you had a choice between Z-Cars and Come Dancing.

So much is better now. The internet despite its dangers, is a wonderful tool. Cars and planes are safer. Health care, for those who can afford it, is far superior. Levels of poverty and disease are far lower than they were in the Sixties. Even wars, such as the conflict in Syria and Iraq, are notable for their comparative rarity, even if it seems otherwise.

Yet I do feel that we’ve lost something in our pursuit of speed, of quick fixes, of instant service. We’ve forgotten how to wait, and our attention span is declining with each generation. As parents we get nervous when our little darlings tell us they have nothing to do. As voters we demand action – now. As shareholders we get ready to fire the CEO when results don’t improve by the next quarter. When we get sick, we must have antibiotics – now. When our broadband fails we shriek down the phone at the poor Indian call centre agent, demanding action – now.

I’m as impatient as the next person. As my wife would tell you, I rage at idiots who hold up traffic. I’m apoplectic when the internet goes down. And I can’t stand queues at airports. Perhaps the malaise started with my generation. For my parents, waiting was a way of life, especially in wartime – standing in line, taking your turn, putting up with shortages, powerlessly hoping for a positive outcome. Our expectations grew to be different over time.

And the politicians, the retailers, the doctors and the service providers pander to us, because they don’t have the balls to say “wait. Nobody has died. It’s not the end of the world. It will take time to fix this.”

We measure our quality of life by how easy it is. Stress is bad. Everywhere around us are safety nets waiting to catch us if we fall. And as each generation finds it easier to blame others for its misfortunes, it finds it harder to take responsibility for its own salvation.

Everything that takes a long time we usually perceive as negative, apart from holidays. And even then we complain about traffic jams, security and queues at airports.

It’s interesting that western culture is not the only one to be affected by hatred of delayed gratification. Right now the Muslim world is in the middle of the Holy Month of Ramadan. The faithful fast from dawn to dusk. No water, no food, not even toothpaste. In the United Kingdom, where at this time of year daylight lasts for eighteen hours, that’s tough. And it’s something to bear in mind when we watch cricketers like the admirable Moeen Ali stand apart during drinks breaks. Could you participate in top-level sport if you’ve had nothing to eat or drink for twelve hours?

You would think that among Muslims, self-restraint and patience would be ingrained in their cultural DNA. Yet in Saudi Arabia, one Muslim country I know well, the I-want-it-now ethos is stronger than just about every other place I’ve visited. Is that because in a desert culture you grab what is life-sustaining when you can? Or is it because the oil-rich country has become accustomed to everything they want being available – from retailers, employees and servants – at the click of the fingers? The latter, I fancy, which suggests that nurture, not nature, breeds impatience.

Are there things we would like to be longer? Our lives, for sure, until we face a final decade of loneliness and declining health. Mealtimes – bring back the long lunch. Sex, perhaps, assuming we make the time between Episode Seven of Games of Thrones and that late-night catch-up to see who’s posting on Instagram or to check our email.

Now that we have short-form golf, what’s next? Speed chess? Maybe, but hardly a majority activity. Speed elections – now there’s a thought. Quickie criminal trials – ISIS knows a thing or two about those. Fast exams – well, I think we’re already getting there.

A final thought. By all means teach the young about all those things lacking in the current curricula – citizenship, soft skills, resilience and so forth. But before each kid leaves primary school, give them a special test. Put them in a room on their own with nothing but a few random objects, including a pencil and paper. Watch them for three hours with the promise that there will be a reward for those who don’t walk out early. See how they use the time.

OK, that’s a pretty crazy idea. I’m sure educationalists can come up with more sensible ways to develop powers of concentration and patience. And they should.

Because if there’s one thing we should be teaching our kids so that they can cope with life after they’ve fled the nest, it’s that there are some things in life that unfold rather than explode. We need them to learn how to wait.

From → Education, Film, Social, Sport, UK

  1. Very true.. I find myself to be incapable of having patience for extended periods of time.

    -Sincerely, Gen Y

  2. I think there’s a balance to be found between making things happen and recognising what needs to unfold of its own accord. Not sure I’ve ever achieved that! By the way, I like your stories. S

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