In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Impatient Heart: Is It Indeed Now or Never?

It’s now or never. Tomorrow will be too late

"It's now or never, my love won't wait." Elvis Presley

"And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had for her." Genesis, 29: 20

"Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return." W. H. Auden

The romantic heart is typically described as impatient-"It's now or never. Tomorrow will be too late." It is assumed that it is not natural to postpone satisfaction in matters concerning love. Contrary to this popular assumption, there are many circumstances in which the romantic heart can be very patient.

Instability is a basic characteristic of emotions. Emotions indicate a transition in which the preceding context has changed, but no new context has yet stabilized. Emotions are like a storm: as unstable states that signify some agitation, they are intense, occasional, and of limited duration. Another popular metaphor compares emotions to a fire. Just as you cannot ask a storm to calm down and be patient, you cannot expect a loving heart to relax and wait. This excitement that is attributed to love is expressed in the following verse by the Greek poet Sappho:

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When I see you, my voice fails
My tongue is paralyzed,
A fiery fever runs through my whole body
My eyes are swimming
And can see nothing
My ears are filled with a throbbing din
I am shivering all over.


The impatience of the heart is related to another central feature of romantic love: it is viewed as an irrational, irresistible, uncontrollable, and compelling emotional force. As Enrique Iglesias sung, "Maybe I'm addicted, I'm out of control, but you're the drug that keeps me from dying." People can become as addicted to love as others are to drugs. Love can disable the lover from functioning properly and generate depression and despair. In this sense, love can be regarded as a serious illness. When sexual desire is more intense, the heart is less patient; when the intensity declines, impatience declines as well.

Together with this unstable impatience, lovers often speak about their patient heart—Jacob waited for Rachel 14 years and they seemed to him as a few days, because of the profound love he felt for her (see here). Consider also the following description by a married man of his feelings while waiting for his lover: "I always came earlier to our meeting place. Though I was very excited to see her, I felt a kind of calm elation. I had all the patience in the world, as I knew that she would always come, and then I would be in heaven. Sometimes, I even wanted this waiting to last a bit longer, as it felt so good."

In analyzing our emotions toward others' suffering, Stefan Zweig (in his Impatience of the Heart) distinguishes between two kinds of feelings: "One [type is] feeble-hearted and truly sentimental, but [it also involves] the impatience of one's heart to escape as fast as possible from the embarrassing clutches of an alien affliction... And the other, the only one that counts-unsentimental but creative compassion, knowing its own mind and determined to endure patiently and compassionately whatever may come, to the utmost of its strength and beyond."

Zweig actually distinguishes here between pity and compassion. Pity is superficial and impatient while compassion is profound and patient. Compassion involves the willingness to become personally involved, while pity usually does not. Pity is more spectator-like than compassion; we can pity people while maintaining a safe emotional distance from them. While pity involves a belief in the inferiority of the object, compassion assumes an equality in which we share a common humanity.

A similar distinction can be made by the profound emotion of romantic love and the more superficial emotion of sexual desire. Romantic love, in which sexual desire is a part, involves a comprehensive positive evaluation of the other and the wish to be together all the time. Since such togetherness is expressed in all the types of activities that the couple shares, there is no reason to be impatient when doing one activity rather than another. Love takes account of the long term, so there is no reason to be impatient in any moment that one is with one's beloved. When you know that paradise awaits you, you are more likely to feel pleasurable expectation rather than impatience. Sexual desire is more partial and brief. It does not last forever and when it exists it demands an immediate fulfillment. It is hard to be patient when you are experiencing the flames of sexual desire (see here).

The patience of the heart is connected to the depth of the heart's attitude; this depth is expressed in the heart's level of involvement with the other person. Such involvement is related to the recognition of the value we place on the object of our love. When the involvement of the heart is profound, as in compassion and genuine love, the heart can be patient. If even just being with someone is an intrinsically valuable activity, you can be incredibly patient as all sorts of activities with your beloved are valuable and enjoyable for you. Pure sexual desire is more purposeful in nature and its benefits are more partial and superficial.

The heart becomes impatient with matters that are superficial and have merely extrinsic value, as it wants to achieve its goal as soon as possible. In such cases, the heart is less willing to invest resources, including time and effort; hence, it is more likely to be impatient when it has not yet achieved its goal. In genuine love (and compassion), the caring is profound, so one is ready to invest whatever resources are needed, including one's time.

The value of playing hard to get lies precisely in detecting whether the other's attitude is profound and whether he is ready to invest some effort in order to be with you, or whether he is merely pursuing a sexual goal (see here). In the former case, he will be ready to wait and be patient until you are ready; in the latter case, he will be impatient and not ready to invest resources, such as time, in order to achieve his sexual reward. When you are with someone, it is usually not difficult to discern whether his heart is patient or impatient and what the reasons are that cause it to be it so.

A married woman noted how very patient she had been when she pursued her husband and then later her lover, but added that she feels very impatient now as they do not show respect or profound love for her. When she felt a profound love for her partners, her heart was very patient, but when that love was eroded by their disrespectful and therefore seemingly superficial attitude toward her, she grew impatient, since superficial attitudes belong within the territory of the impatient heart.

Our modern society seems to have made us more impatient; one major reason is that we now expect quicker rewards for whatever we do. From instant coffee to instant love, we have become trained to demand rapid fulfillment, immediate gratification, and quick results. Most people expect defined rewards; few do anything for nothing. When the rewards are not instantaneous, we immediately become impatient.

To sum up, having a patient heart is an expression of genuine love; while this heart can become impatient in certain circumstances, such as sexual desire, the general mood is that of calm, patient elation. When the heart is impatient all the time, it indicates a lack of profound genuine love.
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, please be impatient with me in bed, and patient outside bed. I am afraid that the situation is currently the reverse."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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