The Frustration of Waiting in Line: Idle Thoughts about the Queue


The folks in the above photo don’t look too happy. They are waiting for a bus in Chicago back in 1973. Just the year before, my grad school roommate Don Osborn told me that he’d had a nightmare about getting into his car, merging into traffic, and thereby creating complete and total gridlock — everywhere and forever. Talk about a long wait.

Earlier this month, a 125-mile traffic jam on the highway from St.Petersburg to Moscow lasted an entire weekend, Friday through Sunday. A snowstorm was identified as the cause.

At least the folks in the traffic jam presumably had access to car radios, music systems, and internet-connected phones. Those in the 1973 photo had none of those things. What might they have done to pass the time?

  • Talked to their neighbors.
  • Meditate (not as popular then as now, however).
  • Think about the things they were grateful for.

Based on their facial expressions, however, it looks as though they were preoccupied. They appear to be compulsively checking the horizon, hoping to spot the bus, forgetful of the old adage “A watched pot never boils.” Some are surely grumbling about the traffic, the lousy public transportation system, the cold weather; or worrying about the appointment for which they will be late.

A more productive activity would have been to think about the countless previous times they’d been late in their lives, caught in lines of one sort or another, and how life went on without tragic consequences. Or, they could have spent the time contemplating those who suffer real tragedies, and realize that waiting in line is small potatoes by comparison.

No one would have stopped them from looking around at the architecture or doing some people-watching. I suspect there were lists to be made, too. Things like:

  • What do I need to get at the grocery?
  • What are the things I need to work on to be a better person?
  • What have I been putting off that I need to put on the top of my to-do list.

They probably didn’t, of course.

Various estimates suggest that we Americans spend two to three years of our lives in line. A lack of control seems to be part of what makes this unpleasant. Many of the same people who hate being in line will procrastinate on tasks that cause them even more agony than a time-wasting queue. I recall my anticipatory anxiety as I contemplated calling a girl for my first-ever date in high school. I must have stared at the telephone (only land-lines existed back then) for an hour or more. I’ve long since learned that getting things over with quickly is not only more efficient, but reduces suffering; and, that the lead-up is by far the worst part of the process. She said “yes,” by the way.

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Bowery Men Waiting in Breadline, 1910

Another way of dealing with involuntary waiting is to reframe the situation. Instead of seeing it as a problem, you might look upon it as an opportunity to learn a zen-like patience. That attitude would cause you to be grateful to the inefficient checkout clerk at the store or the person in line ahead of you who has 13 different coupons to process and is writing a time-consuming check rather than using cash or a credit card. But, if patience seems a stretch for you, some effort to accept the things you can’t change could work to make you feel less aggravated.

Waiting can sometimes build anticipation in a good way. If the world were filled only with immediate gratification of every desire, I suspect we would value all those pleasures less. Waiting for a first kiss or the chance to attend your first Major League baseball game gives those (very different) events more meaning because of the wait. Waiting for a well-prepared meal leads to more satisfaction than a quick trip to McDonald’s. Indeed, the excitement of Christmas Day for small children is entirely dependent on the delayed gratification involved. The sheer joy of watching one’s children explode out of bed to open their gifts is something to behold.

Issues of fairness and self-recrimination seem to pop-up more in places where there are multiple queues. If you’ve chosen the slowest moving line, you’re likely to kick yourself or to get angry that “your” checker isn’t more efficient. On the other hand, if you happen to make the “right” choice of which line to stand in, you probably aren’t going to think you are the luckiest person in the world. In other words, the movement of your line matters more when it is slow than when it progresses rapidly.


Funny that few people say they can’t wait to get to heaven. As much as the faithful identify it as the ultimate reward, doctors don’t see too many patients neglecting treatment of life-threatening diseases because they want to checkout faster. And so, most of us do our best to keep our spot in the mortality-queue static; and are happy to let someone else jump ahead, hoping in this kind of column alone, that things move slowly.

Even when we aren’t in line, we spend much time waiting. When you are little you can’t wait to grow up. A bit later, you can’t wait to get your driver’s license and then go to college. Then, too many of us wait for the weekend and are impatient to retire, waiting for the gold watch and the free time that comes along with a Social Security check.

Just perhaps, we are preoccupied with the wrong thing. Whenever we are “just waiting,” we aren’t focused on the present moment or anything that might be of value. We are, like the people in the top photo, looking down the street for the bus that is going to take us someplace better in the future, or so we think. Yet, most would agree, the time is going to waste.

The next time you find yourself in a slow-moving line, it might serve you well to consider another way to use your queue time. There is much to ponder, much to love, much to learn in life. The line might be a kind of study hall or a laboratory to make a new discovery. The queue gives you a chance to change yourself.

What are you waiting for?

The first image is called Queuing Up For the Bus, photographed by Paul Sequeira in Chicago, 1973 for the EPA. The final photo is of “Sailors assigned to the phone and distance line detail wait to start a replenishment at sea from the bridge deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43). Fort McHenry is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group supporting maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Wilson). All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.