The lost virtue of patience

Patience is a virtue

How patience is being eroded, and why it still matters.

Patience (or forbearance) comes from the Latin patientia, “patience, endurance, submission,” and, ultimately—like “passivity” and “passion”—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 itself an important aspect of other virtues such as hope, faith, and love. Patience is, therefore, a paradigm for the ancient notion of the unity of the virtues.

In Buddhism, patience is named as one of the Six Perfections and extends to the non-return of harm. The Book of Proverbs, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, speaks very highly of patience: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” This is echoed in Ecclesiastes, which teaches, “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 can 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.

Impatience implies impotence, or lack of control or command over a situation, and this impotence gives rise to frustration. Impatience and frustration are as misguided as they are miserable and as sterile as they are self-defeating. They can lead 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.

We’ve forgotten how to be patient

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 a withdrawal and withholding of the self. And things are only getting 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 the 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.“

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 to 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.

The power of 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.

If impatience implies impotence, patience implies power—power borne out of understanding. Rather than make us a hostage to 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. Faced with a long checkout line, abandoning my shopping might be the right or rational thing to do, but, even then, I can do so without losing my cool and making a bad situation much worse.

Source: Psychology Today