I'm inclined to wax nostalgic about The Wizard of Oz, specifically about how I used to delight in the anticipation of seeing something that only came around once a year, with all of the attendant fanfare of such a rare event. People would talk about it for days—perhaps weeks—before it aired, and I remember the lead-up being almost on par with Christmas in terms of excitement. As much as waiting for anything was insufferable to me as a child, the process of waiting for The Wizard of Oz each year taught me that the anticipation of a thing could be nearly as satisfying as the thing itself. I would come to appreciate the nuances of this idea later in life, but at five years old, it was only ruby slippers that I waited for and coveted.
Today, it's hard to understand how watching a movie on television could produce such a thrill. We have become habituated to instant gratification in ways that are obvious enough: Our entertainment is consumed on demand. Arguments are settled and curiosities satisfied with a Google search rather than a trip to the library. Even a date can be summoned with the casual swipe of a finger. We wait for precious little.
So, when the podcast Serial began airing a few years ago, releasing a new episode each Thursday, I found that, for the first time in many years, I could revisit the pleasures of waiting for some simple thing. This particular kind of joy-in-anticipation was shared collectively on social media, where "Is it Thursday yet?" became the hashtag emblem of our weekly wait, likely created by a person who never learned patience by trying to tape record a song from the radio.
All of this must have been too much for the younger crowd to bear, because when Serial created the spin-off S-Town, the show was released all at once in “binge-worthy” fashion. This disappointed me, as I had not only been enjoying the space for contemplation that the time between episodes had given me, I had also enjoyed, to some extent, the shared "suffering" of waiting with other fans. There is communion in adversity, however slight the shared trials might be.
I tried to manufacture a sense of anticipation for the new show by restricting myself to an episode a week, but as anyone who has tried to resist eating cookies by hiding them knows—well, you just always know where the cookies are hiding. The temptation to binge was too great and chatter about the show was all around me. I eventually succumbed and listened to the whole series at once, though all I really wanted was some quiet time to think on some things—the desperation of a closeted life in the South, for example, or the isolation and despair in the life of an eccentric genius. I wanted to think and talk about poverty and humanity. In truth, I could have even spent an afternoon thinking about mottos inscribed on sundials: Serius est quam cogitas: It's later than you think. Tempus breve est: Time is short.
Time is short. Indeed, we know. Perhaps that is the impetus behind our impulse to seek out pleasure in the moment, to seize the day as Horace decreed: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
Seize the day, trusting little in tomorrow.
This could be the motto for our modern time. I recently asked an older colleague if he thought that this instant and abundant gratification was detrimental to our happiness. He smiled at me in a fatherly way, his head at a tilt as if amused by my question.
"Yes," he said without further explication.
"What are we supposed to DO about it then,” I nearly yelled, pounding my fists on the desk between us.
Apparently, I expected wisdom on demand along with everything else.
When I first set out to write this, I thought I was going to explore what is lost when our every whim is satisfied at any time, when we lose our capacity to find some measure of joy in waiting. I didn’t care to get into the Big Ideas here, ones about striving and sacrificing for noble things; I wanted to know, more than anything, how I could recapture that feeling from my youth, that anticipation for something that was, but for one day a year, being denied me. But that is not where I am being led.
In his Discourses, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus highlights the pitfalls of the very thing I had set out to defend and reclaim, though what I had framed as anticipation he had named desire: "It's not only the desire for wealth and position that debases and subjugates us, but also the drive for peace, leisure, travel, and learning. It doesn't matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another. . .where our heart is set, there our impediment lies."
Anticipation of any kind, he argues, makes us a slave to the objects of those desires. It interferes with our ability to live in the moment, enjoying what is actually in our midst. We are never present, only wanting.
It seems I’ve been asking the wrong questions all along. It is wanting that is the problem, not the reward. Rather than ask how to recapture that innocent excitement, I should have been asking, How can I curb my desires in the first place? This is a thornier angle. From clever marketing to social media influencers, the culture largely tells us what we should want. I would have been pleased to watch The Wizard of Oz with my family had it simply happened to be on, but I spent a week or more obsessing over the show precisely because the network and its advertisers had built an obsessive hype around it. This tactic was powerful enough that, over three decades later, I still fall victim to this manufactured desire, still want the wanting of the next thing someone tells me to consume in addition to the thing itself.
There is a contraction of the contemplative space when we constantly, casually consume, whether it's entertainment or news or cheap goods from the third world that we’re swallowing wholesale. There’s simply no space for reflection on the meaning or value of any of it. That, in the end, is what I’ve really been missing. Desire was merely a distraction.
Still, I feel compelled to reflect on the value of the things that bring me joy. I want to feel the joy, after all, even if I want to be freed from the desire preceding it. As I began toying with this idea, I made a list of ordinary things I look forward to and queried a few friends for ideas of their own. Our lists were remarkably similar. We look forward to food, mainly, to plump June strawberries and the first sweet corn of summer. We look forward to things the natural world offers us—a sunny day in winter or the first warm blush of spring, the abrupt arrival of fall, its air cutting like a knife’s edge. We look forward to a real conversation amid a sea of idle chatter. But we love each thing in its season, accepting it as it arrives, on a timeline set by forces entirely out of our control. There is no real yearning for these things, merely delight in their eventual arrival. I want to live my life mindful of this, to accept joy as it presents itself, not as I might hope for it in a future that may never be. After all, it is later than I think.