The Lost Virtue of Patience
How patience is being eroded, and why it still matters
Posted Aug 31, 2019
An old man shared his deepest regret. "I wish," he said, "that I had understood the unfolding of time."
Patience comes from the Latin patientia, "patience, endurance, submission," and ultimately from patere, "to suffer." It can be defined as the quality of endurance or equanimity in the face of adversity, from simple delay or provocation to tragic misfortune and terrible pain.
Being both useful and difficult, patience is often thought of as a virtue, but it can also be understood as a complex of virtues, including self-control, humility, tolerance, generosity, and mercy, and is an important aspect of other virtues, such as hope, faith, and love. Patience is, therefore, a paradigm for the unity of the virtues.
In Buddhism, patience is named as one of the "perfections" (paramitas), and as in other religious traditions, it extends to the non-return of harm. Thus, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul exhorts, "Be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men."
The Book of Proverbs tells us: "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city." According to Ecclesiastes, "the patient in spirit is better than the proud of spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools."
The opposite of patience is, of course, impatience, which might be defined as the inability or disinclination to endure perceived imperfection. Impatience is a rejection of the present moment on the grounds that it is marred and ought to be replaced by some more ideal imagined future. It is a rejection of the way things are, a rejection of reality.
Whereas patience recognizes that life is a struggle for each and every one of us, impatience takes offense at people for being the way they are, betraying a kind of disregard, even contempt, for human nature in its finitude.
Impatience implies impotence, which gives rise to frustration. Impatience and frustration are as misguided as they are miserable and as sterile as they are self-defeating. They give rise to rash and destructive action, and also, paradoxically, to inaction, or procrastination, since to put off a difficult or boring task is also to put off the frustration to which it is bound to lead.
Today more than ever, patience is a forgotten virtue. Our individualistic and materialistic society values ambition and action (or, at least, activity) above all else, whereas patience involves withdrawing and withholding of the self.
Technological advances are only making matters worse. In a study of millions of Internet users, researchers found that, within just 10 seconds, about half of users had given up on videos that had not yet started to play. What’s more, users with a faster connection were fastest to click away, suggesting that technological progress is actually eroding our patience. Waiting, even for a very short time, has become so unbearable that much of our economy is geared at eliminating "dead time."
In The Art of Failure, I argued that such restless impatience is an expression of the manic defense, the essence of which is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by distracting it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control.
Even in pre-technological times, the "egocentric predicament" made patience hard to exercise. What is the egocentric predicament? Because I have privileged access to my own thoughts, I tend to blow them out of all proportion.
For example, if I am impatient in the checkout line, this is largely because I am under the impression that my time is more valuable, and my purpose more worthwhile, than that of the mugs standing in front of me. In a belief that I could be doing a better job at the till, I give dagger eyes to the cashier—failing to recognize that she is coming at it from a different perspective and with different skills and abilities. In the end, my frustration in itself becomes a source of frustration, as I vacillate between biding my time in the line, changing lines, and even abandoning my shopping.
Patience can be regarded as a decision-making problem: eat up all the grain today, or plant it into the ground and wait for it to multiply. Unfortunately, human beings evolved not as farmers but as hunter-gatherers, and have a strong tendency to discount long-term rewards.
Our ancestral short-sightedness is borne out by the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a series of studies on delayed gratification led by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and 1970s. Conducted on hundreds of 4- and 5-year-old children, Mischel’s studies involved a simple binary choice: Eat this marshmallow, or hold back for 15 minutes and be given a second marshmallow.
Having explained this choice to a child, the experimenter left the child alone with the marshmallow for 15 minutes. Follow-up studies carried out over 40 years found that the minority of children who had been able to hold out for the second marshmallow went on to enjoy significantly better life outcomes, including higher test scores, better social skills, and less substance abuse.
Even so, patience involves much more than the mere ability to hold back for some future gain. Exercising patience (note the verb "to exercise") can be compared to dieting or growing a garden. Yes, waiting is involved, but one also needs to have a plan in place and to work at that plan.
And so, when it comes to others, patience amounts not to mere restraint or toleration, but to active, complicit engagement in their struggle and welfare. In that much, patience is a form of compassion, which, rather than disregarding and alienating people, turns them into friends and allies.
If impatience implies impotence, patience implies power, power born out of understanding. Rather than make us into a hostage of fortune, patience frees us from frustration and its ills, and affords us the calm and perspective to think, say, and do the right thing in the right way at the right time, while still being able to enjoy all the other things that are good in our life.
Last but not least, patience enables us to achieve things that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve. As La Bruyère put it, "There is no road too long to the person who advances deliberately and without undue haste; there are no honors too distant to the person who prepares himself for them with patience."
"Genius," said Michelangelo, "is eternal patience."
Exercising patience does not mean never protesting or giving up, but only ever doing so in a considered fashion: never impetuously, never pettily, and never pointlessly. Neither need it mean withholding, just like aging a case of fine wine for several years need not mean withholding from wine during all that time. Life is too short to wait, but it is not too short for patience.
Patience is much easier, even pleasant, to exercise if one truly understands that it can and does deliver much better outcomes, not just for ourselves, but for others too. In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the marshmallow experiment. But before doing so, they split the participating children into two groups, exposing the first group to unreliable experiences in the form of broken promises, and the second group to reliable experiences in the form of kept promises. What they found is that the children from the second group (exposed to reliable experiences) waited for an average of four times longer than the children from the first group.
In other words, patience is in large part a matter of trust or, some might say, faith—including in our political, legal, and financial systems.
Krishnan and Sitaraman (2012). Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior. ACM Internet Measurement Conference, Nov 2012.
Mischel et al. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21 (2): 204-218.
Kidd et al. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition 126 (1): 109-114.