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In the Waiting Room

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

What do you do while you wait for the doctor in the waiting room?

We all go to the doctor and the dentist - at least, we should. And we all wait - often for too long. But how do we spend those nervous moments?

Next time you're there, take a look around. The possibilities seem endless.

If it's your first visit to a particular doctor, you may very well engage in trying to figure out who the doctor actually is. The "secret passage" leading to the examining and consultation rooms swings open many times during your wait, and you might find yourself peering inside to catch a glimpse of the staff in an attempt to identify the doctor. It isn't easy nowadays, since the traditional "white coat" is often eschewed in today's 'normalized' medical settings… probably to make the game a bit more challenging. Patients can even be seen playing a variation of musical chairs, sometimes resorting to switching seats as they vie for the best angle in scanning the scene.

Reading the minds of fellow waiting room patients is another frequent practice. You judge the purpose of their visits based on age, manifest tension, posture, and questions they ask the receptionist and conclude whether they are here for something acute, chronic, or imagined.

And magazine perusal, of course, is standard waiting room fare. But often, the magazine selection defies reason and you find yourself having to choose between an ancient copy of National Review with a bewildered Michael Dukakis on the cover, Golf Digest, and Kidney Quarterly and the like.

A new trend has patients on cell phones, loudly instructing their children how to defrost exotic vegetables, arguing with their service carrier about roaming charges, or planning vacation excursions with anyone who will listen. 'Annoying' is an understatement.

But a recent waiting room experience of my own shed a new perspective on this seemingly mundane subject matter.

It seems that marketing pundits have determined that depriving oneself of video stimulation for even a short span of time might be hazardous to one's health. And so, many waiting rooms (and barber shops and even banks) now house TVs or VCR's for our viewing pleasure while we wait. At times, regularly scheduled programs are shown and sometimes infomercials hawking specific medications, treatment facilities, or exercise regimens are presented.

Some months ago, my eyes were surgically glued to a fascinating article in
Spleen magazine when my ears were diverted to a different stimulus - a TV commercial. I knew immediately it was a commercial since the decibel level seemed to suddenly double.

"Do you remember this song?" the announcer beckoned.

I did.

The voice was unmistakable.

"We're goin' to America…..we're goin' to America….TODAY!"

The years flashed before my eyes. No, Neil Diamond was not my favorite artist - not then, not now. But who could forget, or even resist, Sweet Ca-ro-line, the thumpy Song Sung Blue, or the maudlin strains of You Don't Bring me Flowers, to name just a few.

"Turn the clock back and hear the newly digitally mastered tracks you've loved so much. 24 top-of-the-chart hits all on one extraordinary CD."

I smiled. This little commercial had instantly transported me back to a time passed of longing days and syrupy innocence. "Isn't nostalgia wonderful?" I mused.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, I was rocked (and rolled) into reality. There I was, lost in wistfulness, humming some mislaid lyrics in some off key harmony, when the announcer floored me with his final desperate pitch.

"Order now…operators are standing by…don't miss this incredible opportunity to get 24 of Neil Diamond's most IMPORTANT contributions!"

My head winced in incredulity. Did he say, "IMPORTANT" contributions? And then, right on cue, the broadcaster repeated it - just for my sake.

Now, call me sacrilegious, if you want. But would anyone seriously consider Longfellow Serenade an "important" contribution?

Now, call me sacrilegious, if you want. I'm well aware that N.D. is a hero, an icon, a celebrity of immeasurable musical proportion. But would anyone seriously consider Longfellow Serenade an "important" contribution? His greatest fan, I'd bet, would hesitate to deem I Am…I Said even remotely "important." Especially since the chorus goes:

"I am I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all, not even the chair."

I'd guess that even Neil himself (born 63 years ago as Noah Kaminsky) might be a tad embarrassed by the designation, "Important," being placed next to Heartlight or Heartbreak Hotel. Call his music 'stirring, impressive,' or maybe 'cool,' but "important," was really stretching it.

I took a swift glimpse around. My eyes surveyed the waiting room. Soon I'd be called in for my stress test. "Routine," said my internist. He was right, I assured myself. But glancing at the anxious couple in their 70's across from me, I doubted that their visit was, in any way, ordinary or routine. Nor did the frail white-haired woman sitting alone next to me look especially healthy or relaxed. No. This was a serious place, this waiting room. "Important" considerations filled the minds of these patients.

Now roused by the stark contrast between the truly important matters that filled this anteroom of apprehension and the preposterous description of golden-oldies as being "important" too, my thoughts shifted to the sublime question of what I considered to be really important.

Within moments, my mind was bombarded by topics of potential significance - God, health, family, religion, relationships, life-goals, priorities, Israel, world peace, education, purpose, livelihood, creativity, food (food?), and many, many others. This was 'heavy' stuff, I thought. But it's good stuff…appropriate contemplation for a waiting room.

Just a few minutes earlier, the nurse had handed me a medical history questionnaire and a clipboard. There were literally hundreds of 'yes' or 'no' questions that I had to answer. I never knew so many serious diseases, conditions, and symptoms even existed. I recalled that the entire form took me less than three minutes to fill out. What a shame. The human organism is so very complex. There are so many things that could go wrong. I should have paused every single time I checked the 'no' box, and uttered, "Thank God." Again, good use of waiting room time.

All of us have seats in this giant waiting room that we call Planet Earth. Someday our names will be called. What will we be doing?

My thoughts carried me further.

In Ethics of the Fathers we are taught:

"Rabbi Yaakov says: This world is like an antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banquet hall."

All of us have seats in this giant waiting room that we call Planet Earth. Someday our names will be called. What will we be doing?

Then I remembered an item I had read several years ago about a Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, John Silber. He was asked why he thought he had lost the 1990 election. His answer was downright startling and I never forgot it.

"I was being interviewed one day," Silber said, "and I was asked what I thought was the single most important thing to teach our children. I believe that the answer that I gave cost me the election. I said that the most important thing to teach our children is that one day they will die."

Apparently, people were just not ready to hear such blunt advice. And they punished him with their ballot.

I think it not coincidental that this particular story suddenly popped into my waiting room reflections. Whether or not I agreed with what the candidate said is moot. But not losing sight of one's mortality can inarguably be termed "important."

Strange. The incongruity of Neil Diamond's songs being termed "important," had led me to some truly important places - compassion, consideration of life's priorities, appreciation, and the mortality of man.

I believe it was Bertrand Russell who once said, "Man would sooner die than think; in fact, he often does."

Thinking. Now, that's something we all can do in the waiting room…if we dare.

May the Almighty grant a refua sh'laima to Pnina Bat Jaya Miriam

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