Waiting not all wasted time

Going stir-crazy after three days in a locked-down Colombo, where I was covering a Commonwealth summit, I got it into my head that I would fly the coop the minute work duties were over.

Because of the once-a-day Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight schedule, we actually had a spare 36 hours of free time in Sri Lanka after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong left.

But I became determined to get on the same flight he was on, hours after we filed our last stories.

Covering these summits can be a lot like being in the army - or so I've heard. A lot of waiting around for the leaders to emerge from their closed-door sessions, followed by a high-intensity two hours where you rush to file stories after press conferences.

Sri Lankans seemed to have been mostly told to shutter and disappear while this high-security summit went on and the roads were often at a standstill due to roadblocks for VIP convoys.

So I had spent a lot of that waiting time literally waiting, reading, paddling around the tiny hotel pool, watching the BBC, staring out of my room window.

After watching the same news segment loop five times in two hours, my restlessness grew into one of those moods where you become convinced that everything - all life, excitement, and joy - would resume only when you had left where you were.

Like being in a traffic jam or a doctor's waiting room or the Friend Zone. My weekend in Sri Lanka became a metaphor for my stagnant life.

So when the SIA hotline told me that I could switch my flight only at the airport, as long as there were empty seats, I sprang into action.

On the way, I congratulated myself on my derring-do, and smugly judged the other journalists, who were equally bored but wouldn't take the chance with me. Risk-aversity never got anyone anywhere!

It's obvious where this story is going. They wouldn't let me on the plane because the PM's presence made it a high-security flight.

I tried to take it out on the Sri Lankan airport staff, but their cool gazes were as hard and indifferent as the airport's flat, fluorescent lighting, draining me of all bluster.

As airport mishaps go, this was a minor one. As stagnant moments go, this was all of one weekend. The intensity I had displayed towards the situation was disproportionate to its worth.

The puzzled gazes of the other journalists when I told them of my flight- switching plan were not the meek, capitulating expressions worn by the risk-averse in the face of bold action - but genuine bewilderment that I was boliao enough to elevate an extra 36 hours into some sort of prize.

Writ small, it was a scenario of regular replay in my life. I can't seem to go with the flow, or accept situations that are unfinished, or recognise moments where you just have to wait.

I tend to impose my will and extract an outcome that I prefer, even at a cost no one else thinks is worth paying. What they called impatience, I always thought of as efficiency. Sometimes, this works to my advantage. But when I sense myself in a wait that I can't end through force of will, I wait terribly - irritably, anxiously, grudgingly.

The problem is that this period of adulthood puts a lot in that category. The right posting, the right partner, that spiritual and financial maturity that seems like some sort of arrival that you recognise only when it happens.

My sister talked about the maddening nature of waiting when she was pregnant. But the wait - all waits - need not be empty ones, she reflected. By definition, they never are.

The season of change and momentousness will come, but perhaps the true measure of a person is what you do with all the time before and between, all the stretches of mundanity that make up most of life.

It will probably take a few more empty trips to the airport before I can sense when to spring into action and when to wait, when not to waste time and when to see that time is not wasting away.

And honestly, if I had gotten on that flight, what would I have done back in Singapore anyway? There's always another wait.

rchang@sph.com.sg


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