Places Cut Out of Coloured Paper by Sanne van de Goor, 2013

The waiting room as a reserve for plastic, steel, and Duplo blocks

By Laurens Landeweerd 

The waiting room is an odd place. Everyone who walks in is coerced into humility. You’re obliged to sit in a plastic bucket seat, in a row, attached to a steel bar. The chairless corner usually consists of a white laminated piece of particle board or of glass, host to magazines with titles like Doctors and Cars (lest we forget what we should have studied at university), a gossip magazine (a guilty pleasure), a well-worn Donald Duck, and the few odd women’s magazines. And on the cold floor tiles is a green felt carpet with a pathetically incomplete stack of Lego blocks (including an oval thing with eyes) that sneezing toddlers use to build uninspiring creations. Here, even more than at home, every architectural plan is doomed to end in the washing machine, something every child understands all too well.

The people waiting feel awkward about their sickness, but perhaps even more awkward about being confronted with others. And with that lonely toddler’s shabby entertainment set. Occasionally someone mumbles something in an attempt to strike up a conversation, but all the while everyone looks at the three-handed dial ticking away mercilessly on the wall. That is what forces us into humility more than anything else.

Time is a phenomenon that is difficult to express in words. It is an intrinsic part of our experience. In our day and age, the idea of time as a measurable quantity is dominant. And with that measurability a certain sort of impatience creeps into our consciousness: every hour without insight is barren, every minute without action is wasted, and every second without a stimulus is a source of irritation. But even if we have made time measurable, we don’t perceive it as a constant. Time’s quantitative nature is merely illusory; its true nature is qualitative. A busy day can go by in a wink, whereas ten minutes spent waiting can seem like an eternity.

When we have to wait, we are forced into a different way of perceiving time. Our consciousness is situated between the two extremes of remembrance and imagination. These are the two extremes that shape our perception of change. Remembrance and imagination turn the perception of change into a ‘passage through time’. However, the two extremes fragment when we engage in some activity (walking, typing, cycling, cooking). This is because both remembrance and imagination require contemplation, whereas when we engage in an activity we are entirely focused on the relation between our body and some object. In performing an action we also have a certain relationship with time. This happens automatically; the action makes it imperceptible. So we aren’t stuck in the projection from the present into the past (remembrance) and the future (imagination).

But even while engaging in an activity, our perception of time is fragmenting. This is because we are continuously being pulled out of the present. The the environment we live in has been colonised by screens: some urinals in restaurants have a light-sensitive flush button with a built-in screen that continuously displays video advertising; motorways are flanked by giant flatscreens that tell us where we should buy our lawnmower. And if the living environment isn’t confronting us with these types of images, we reach for our mobile phones once we find ourselves in a traffic jam or waiting in line at the bakery. There are also screens in the waiting room to distract us. The stack of magazines is still there, along with the pathetic bin of Lego, but just like the immovable row of bucket seats they don’t really belong in this day and age. We would rather have them removed and hide behind our mobile phones, here even more than on the train or in the lift. We are no longer capable of dealing with this passive way of enduring time.

We wait with a phone in our hand. Whereas in 1950 people were still smoking like chimneys in airplanes, cinemas, and waiting rooms, now you find people waiting glued either to their own screens or to those provided for them. It is only the elderly, not adept at smartware, who attempt to break through the awkwardness. Others find them awkward in their directness. We stare at our phone or at the screens on the wall. In brief, the waiting room is more lonely than ever.

Illness disturbs the natural course of daily affairs. Being ill forces us to adopt a different relationship with time. We must enter into a relationship with our own finiteness. But as uninvited as illness has always been, we are getting increasingly worse at dealing with it. Whereas in the past, the cards were in the hands of God or Fate, we now expect control, responsible determinability, and solution-oriented service, preferably with efficient speed. With healthcare having evolved from a ‘market’ into a ‘service’, we cannot deal with the uncertainty posed by the waiting room. We have a different pattern of expectation. Certainly in that light, the woefully incomplete box of Lego blocks contributes little to client satisfaction. And even the hollow messages on the screens add little to this waiting experience.

We have outgrown being put on hold and have grown unaccustomed to the quiet atmosphere of the waiting room. On the motorway, at the baker’s, and at the government office, we are exposed to stimuli everywhere. At the government office we can always just make a new appointment. At the bakery we know when our number is coming up, and if it takes too long, we can always come back later. In a traffic jam we listen to the radio, or hear a voice in any case. But where we wait for a diagnosis or a treatment plan, the screen does a poor job at distracting us; all our attention is demanded by the clock.

Being ill is simply a passive process: a process of waiting for one’s body. In both English and French, the word ‘patient’ also means ‘able to tolerate delays without becoming annoyed or anxious’. Originally, the word in both its meanings comes from the Greek word ‘pathos’, meaning ‘suffering’ or ‘endurance’. So a patient is someone who endures or suffers, not someone who undertakes action. In this respect, the client model is in conflict with the true nature of healthcare. A client can set demands, employs certain quality criteria, and take his business to a competitor at will. A patient doesn’t have to make a selection and is expected to trust in the expertise of the physician and care staff: the diagnosis and treatment are things that he or she undergoes passively.

Waiting is an intrinsic component of healthcare. Although the body, cooperating with the doctors, does its best to get over the pathology in question, the mind cannot do much more than play the role of passive bystander. So any treatment requires patience. For the doctor, it’s not a question of a service; it’s a matter of us as individuals. Here the word ‘waiting’ becomes enormous. Instead of considering the waiting room to be a problem, what we should do is embrace it. Because where else can you still engage in contemplation, imagination, and remembrance? So let’s not entirely colonise this reserve of steel, plastic, and Lego blocks with the trappings of the 21st century.

Laurens Landeweerd (1976) is a philosopher. He is employed as a researcher in the science faculty of Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. He also holds a position in the interdisciplinary bachelor’s programme at the art academy in Maastricht. His current research concerns the relation between time perception in the exact sciences and the direct experience. His book Time, Life & Memory will be published by Springer next year.