Monday, October 20, 2008



In my satires, I enjoy seizing upon virtues that involve “tension points” between principle and practice. Religious belief, for example, is a familiar “tension point:” A person may claim to “love his neighbor,” when in fact he cheats him and steals from him at any convenient opportunity. The gap between principle and practice yields hypocrisy—to laughable effect. Still, satire is not the only way to identify and criticize these “tension points.” Sometimes it is sufficient merely to discuss them. By understanding why tension exists in a concept, we can understand the values to which our society aspires—and fails to reach.

Patience is a “tension point” between principle and practice. Since childhood, we have been told that “patience is a virtue,” and that “good things come to those who are patient.” In commercial settings, people thank us “for being patient,” as if we had done something truly praiseworthy for them. Scripture tells us that “the fruit of the [Christian] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, [and] self-control.” Epistle of Paul to the Galatians 5:22-23 (emphasis added). In other words, “good people” are patient. Conversely, “impatient people” fail to reach the standard.

If patience is a virtue, what does it entail? I always equated the word “patience” with “waiting.” My mother told me to be “patient” before dinner or before I received a gift. I eagerly expected something, yet had to uncomfortably wait for it. In those circumstances, “patience” meant nothing more than the “ability to wait without getting cranky.” After all, if I were impatient in these circumstances, I would have whined and asked: “When do we eat? Why isn’t the food here? How much longer is this going to take? It always takes so long to do this,” and so on and so forth. I would have been scolded for making such remarks, because I would have been “impatient.” If I were “impatient,” I would have refused to “wait without getting cranky.” I would have gotten cranky, and that is unpleasant for everyone involved.

But as time went on, I found out that there is more to patience than merely waiting. Like so many other apparently familiar words in our language, patience has additional dimensions. “Patience” derives from the Latin verb “patiare,” meaning “to suffer or endure.” The original root says nothing about waiting, although waiting in many circumstances implies a kind of suffering and endurance. In its purest sense, however, “patiare” implies physical or emotional pain. Waiting may be unpleasant, but it does not necessarily inflict physical pain.

In English, too, patience means more than “waiting.” The dictionary tells us that “patience” means: “1. Bearing or enduring pain, trouble, etc. without complaining or losing self-control; 2. refusing to be provoked or angered, as by an insult; forbearing; tolerant; and 3. calmly tolerating delay, confusion, inefficiency, etc.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.). The primary definition involves “pain” and “trouble” without losing “self-control.” “Self-control” roughly corresponds to the unpleasant “crankiness” that used to overcome me as a child, but it could mean much more than that. The second definition lends meaning to “self-control” when it explains that “patience” involves a “refusal to become angered or provoked.” That suggests far more than mere “crankiness.” There are few things as trying as facing insults. They conjure powerfully negative, violent reactions in people. In general, violence is bad, and if a patient man refuses to react violently to unpleasant circumstances, he appears good. Christian theology confirms this when it tells us to “turn the other cheek” to our antagonists. In other words, “patience” is a core Christian ideal, perhaps because it is so tempting to react violently to an antagonist’s goading. Finally, “patience” can mean “calmly tolerating” delay, confusion and inefficiency. These seem to be the most common situations in which people admonish us to be “patient.” For example, waiters ask us for our “patience” when the chef gets “confused,” serves us the wrong dish, then gets it wrong again, leading to “delay” and “inefficiency.” The natural temptation in these circumstances is to get angry, lose self-control and start excoriating people. In fact, the waiter thanks us for not doing these things. He thanks us for being “patient,” or forgoing our naturally negative reactions to “delay,” “inefficiency” and “confusion.”

Patience, then, involves “calm tolerance,” “self-control,” “refusal to become angry,” “forbearance,” and “refusal to complain.” These are strongly positive concepts. A blessed aura surrounds patience; it is no wonder that both common social values and Christian doctrine extol “patience” as a virtue. After all, our world besieges us with maddening inconveniences large and small: irate coworkers, screaming children, long lines, crowds, traffic jams, rude customers, ungrateful friends, inefficient airline workers, delayed mail, forgotten orders, temper tantrums and unrealistic expectations, just to name a few. We face myriad stresses every day and we have limited time to overcome their demands. It is not surprising that we feel an urge to lose “self-control” and to “complain” when contending with such “pain, trouble, delay, inefficiency, provocation and confusion.” Indeed, the natural tendency is to throw up our hands and say: “Screw all of this; I’m out of here.”

Yet that would be a negative reaction. The patient man maintains his self-control throughout all life’s difficulties, even the ones that strike closest to home. For example, a person may profess love for another, yet may walk out after the first argument. That is not patience. Everyone has a limit before they say: “Screw all of this; I’m out of here.” That is the measure of patience. We say that the patient man is good because he controls himself. He does not surrender to the temptation to throw up his hands and run. Like a true Christian, he forgives the “inefficiency, confusion, delay, pain and inconvenience” that torments him. He “endures” it “without complaint.”

But this introduces several conceptual difficulties. After all, we live in an ambitious society. We move quickly. If we do not seize opportunities, we fail. If something goes on longer than planned, we could lose out on a job or an investment. If we are patient in these circumstances, we may be acting “virtuously,” but we will not get the job. Similarly, if we tolerate a person’s insults or poor treatment for too long, we cease to be patient and become “weak.” Where, then, is the line between “patience” and “weakness?” And is it always good to be patient?

Successful business owners thrive on impatience. They do not tolerate inefficiency in any circumstances and move swiftly to eliminate it; they do not “patiently endure it.” Employers do not tolerate delays in production or productivity. They do not “patiently wait” for it to end; they actively step in and complain about it until they achieve the results they seek. And in personal relationships, people rarely “endure” more than one slip-up in their mate before throwing up their hands and saying: “Screw it; I’m out of here.” In all these situations, patience was not the answer. In fact, if the business owner, employer, job-seeker or girlfriend applied patience over impatience, our society would have labeled them “foolish” or “weak.” If that is true, is patience really a virtue?

In my work experience, I observed that patience was actually a vice, not a virtue. In practicing law, it was better to impatiently insist on immediate results rather than to patiently endure inevitable delays. In looking for a job, it was better to impatiently call employers back to ask whether they had seen my resume rather than to patiently wait for them to call me back. Popular phrases such as “You snooze, you lose” exemplify the modern world’s take on patience. If you’re patient, you fail. Go-getters are impatient; that is why they are successful.

At this point, we see the tension point between “theoretical patience” and “practical patience.” At some point, we all have heard that it is good to be patient. We even hope that others will be patient with us when we make mistakes in our own lives. But in practice, how often do we reject patience in order to succeed? There is a vicious double standard at work here: We may pledge ourselves to patience, yet reap nothing but scorn when we observe it. If we give our opponents too much time to answer us in a legal case, people call us “weak cowards” and “do-nothings.” In contrast, if we impatiently bother every single potential customer to win accounts, our employers call us “enterprising.” Similarly, when someone insults us, our society expects us to return the hostility with a fresh barb; we praise people who lose their self-control in these circumstances. Yet if a person patiently refuses to lose self-control, we label him a “weakling.”

To be brief, it is hard to be patient in our world. Sadly, people regularly exploit and manipulate one another, and it would be foolish to be patient with a deceiver. It is extremely easy to lose control when confronting all the frustrating inefficiencies, hardships, delays and injustices that abound in modern life. Nonetheless, there is value in patience. It is possible to acknowledge people as self-interested and egotistic, while remaining patient in principle. Unfortunately, very few people observe patience when their own success is at stake. In our society, it is better to strike hard and fast than to “calmly tolerate” delay and confusion.

If everyone were patient and forbearing in our society, we certainly would live in a better world. But that is not the case. In the endless race for success, pushiness replaces self-control, aggressiveness replaces “turning the other cheek,” and complaint replaces forbearance. In the quest for success, delay is fatal. That is why patience is more vice than virtue in modern life. And that is unfortunate.

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