What are we waiting for?

When I was teaching in the UK, my life was scarred by waiting. When I felt miserable, I waited for the holidays, for the weekend, for the end of the day, or even break-time. When I felt hopeful, I waited for exam-results, progress, or social justice. Unfortunately, I am terribly impatient.

I compare myself with the Aymara people of the Andes. According to Miracle and Yapita’s 1975 study, for the Aymara nothing is thought of waiting half a day or more for a bus.

Perhaps my relative impatience could be attributed to our very different lifestyles: in London, unlike in the Andes, the slow ebbing rhythms of animals and crops were not the centre of my attention. Instead I was always aware of the stomping of time. My life was evermore atomised and utilised: lessons had to be planned to five-minute sections for the sake of ‘pace’, and homework and courses had to be entered onto web-based calendars.

Maybe then technology can explain my impatience: with mobile-phones, we won’t wait more than a few minutes before messaging someone to find out why they’re late; we can countdown the arrival of the next bus or train via an app. In London, the idea that I would wait an hour for a bus, never mind half a day, was unthinkable.

A third and most interesting explanation can be found in the Aymara language. Unlike in English (and apparently most other languages) where our metaphors tend to describe the future as being ahead of us, in Aymara, the future is behind them. Miracle and Yapita report an Aymara as saying, ‘the future in Aymara is what has not been seen’.

English is concerned with where we are going. We face the future. But what if this quirk of language has wrongly led us to make the future the focus of our lives? I used to believe that the utilisation of every second at school, and technological advances were inherently a good thing, that they aided ‘progress’. But I’m developing an allergy to ‘progress’, as I am to other future-obsessed words: ‘outcomes’, ‘targets’, ‘goals’, ‘aims’, ‘objectives’. I want to be like the Aymara, and turn my back on the future, not worry where I am going but pay attention to where I am.

Oriented towards the future, we are pitted against the unknown, against the fear of what happens next. We are brutalised and defined by what we lack, by our desires, and by the extent of our power to bend events to our will. By turning our backs on the future, we quite literally give ourselves time.

Like Christopher Hitchens, one might argue that it is madness to suggest we ‘take no thought for the morrow’. Borrowing C. S. Lewis’ trilemma, Hitchens argued this central tenet of Christ’s teaching could only have been said by a mad-man, a liar, or the Son of God. But I doubt such a thought would seem insane to the Aymara. Perhaps it only fills us with horror because our language urges us to submit to the ‘judgement of history’, as Simone Weil called it. Neither does not worrying about tomorrow exclude the possibility we might invest or learn, as Hitchens argues. One might well invest or learn, not because of concerns about ‘the morrow’, but simply because it is the correct response to a situation.

Consequentialism permeates all our thinking about education: a lesson is only valuable if ‘progress’ is shown; a teacher is only valuable if ‘targets’ are achieved; schooling is only valuable if it enables a child to ditch her roots; and knowledge is only valuable as a tool for creation. But this is all wrong. We’d do well to recall the words of Francis Bacon:

‘Without doubt the contemplation of things as they are without superstition or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than the whole harvest of inventions.’

Such a view is alien to the outcome-obsessed English system. Since I’ve been teaching in Spain, I have certainly mustered more patience. My hope is that I eventually become capable of the kind of contemplation Bacon describes. Then, perhaps, I might revel in the glory of thinking nothing of waiting half a day or more for a bus.

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