In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Impatient Versus Patient Heart

It's now or never versus I will patiently wait for you.

"It's now or never, come hold me tight, Kiss me my darling, be mine tonight,

Tomorrow will be too late, it's now or never." Elvis Presley

"One day I know I'll be back again, Please wait till then…

I know every gain must have a loss, So pray that our loss is nothing but time." The Mills Brothers

"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

Does romantic love involve patience or impatience? There are good indications that it involves both; certain romantic circumstances require patience while there are others that require impatience. Let us consider which circumstances demand which response.

The role of time in love is ambiguous: great romantic intensity makes the heart impatient, but great romantic profundity makes the heart patient. While being impatient is incompatible with romantic compromises, being romantically patient, which is expressed, for instance, in the readiness to wait for the beloved, "till the sun does not shine again," may be considered to be a kind of romantic compromise, at least in the sense of not having what you so yearn for.

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Romantic love involves impatience, namely, a narrow temporal perspective. Thus, the romantic heart is typically described as impatient: In the words of Elvis Presley, "It's now or never; tomorrow will be too late." The theme of an impatient heart and the disregard for time are expressed in another Presley song: “One night with you, is what I’m now praying for” as such a night “would make my dreams come true.” If one night is sufficient for fulfilling one's intense desires and dreams, then indeed time is insignificant in love. The saying “See Naples and die” carries a similar meaning: It is so fulfilling to see the beauty and magnificence of Naples that once you have done so, you have experienced what is really important in life. Similarly, in the movie, The Hour, the character of Virginia Woolf, said, "A woman's whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that day her whole life." There are indeed circumstances—e.g., the day that the two lovers first met—in which one day makes the whole difference. But maintaining the difference over a long period requires time and shared activities.

It appears that while sexual desire is impatient, romantic love is more patient. Sexual desire expresses the intensity of love and such intensity does not endure for long. The aspect of patience is related to romantic profundity, which is developed over time. When you know that paradise awaits you, there is no need to rush into anything. Sexual desire is more partial and brief. It does not last forever and when it exists it demands immediate fulfillment. It is hard to be patient when your whole body is on fire.

The patience of the heart is connected to profound shared activities with the beloved, and these take time. The heart becomes impatient with matters that are superficial and merely have 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, and it becomes impatient when the goal has not yet achieved. 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.

Having a patient heart is an expression of profound love; while this heart can become impatient in certain circumstances, such as in sexual desire, the general mood is that of calm, peaceful elation. When the heart is impatient all the time, it indicates a lack of romantic profundity.

Our current society has 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.

In contrast to romantic impatience, which seeks to diminish the role of time in love, lovers often speak about their patient heart—their readiness to wait for the beloved. Consider 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."

The idealization of waiting for the beloved expresses the value of time in romantic relationship, even if this time does not involve shared activities but merely anticipating such activities. Time itself, which has no meaningful romantic activities, but the waiting for and thinking about the beloved, has lesser romantic value than that of actually being and interacting with the beloved. No meaningful romantic activities can occur during the waiting time, even though this time may be spent thinking about the beloved; consequently, this time has less romantic value than time spent actually being and interacting with the beloved. Furthermore, when the time spent waiting with no shared activities is too long, it can put the relationship itself at risk; hence, the wish articulated in the above song by the Mills Brothers is that "our loss is nothing but time."

Love is full of compromises, as life is different from our dreams. Much of what we want we cannot get, and we often cannot get it when we want it. We need to compromise our love with reality. However, Romantic Ideology despises such compromises. Words such as "convenient," "comfortable," "moderation," "feasible," and "compromise" are not part of the vocabulary of idealistic lovers. Pure love is described as involving a boundless desire, which is compatible with the belief that love can conquer all.

The only compromise that is acceptable to ideal love is temporal—lovers may postpone their romantic gratification by, for example, waiting for months or even years until the beloved is available. Thus, we are told in the Bible that Jacob served fourteen years for Rachel, and “they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had for her." Waiting is also present in companionate love. Thus, a woman who, on her 50th wedding anniversary, said “The first thirty years were difficult, but after that it became easier.” In this kind of compromise, people compromise over the temporal aspect, which they consider to be less significant, in order to avoid compromising over the more significant aspect: the identity of the partner. As Margaret Thatcher said "I am extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end."

True love can wait and prevail even when the accompanying suitable circumstances are not present. Such waiting is not due to the need of maturation, but rather to the great value of the beloved and the refusal to compromise for less than the perfect person. Lines such as: "I will patently wait for you till the end of time," "waited in the darkness patiently," and "save your love for me" are common among lovers and appear in many popular songs and other cultural works. In these circumstances, people compromise over the temporal aspect, which they consider to be less significant, in order to avoid compromising over the more significant aspect: the identity of the beloved. In Romantic Ideology, compromises function as a necessary means to an end; they have no value of their own.

Lovers are prepared to be patient and to make compromises necessitated by their unique situation (and that of their beloved) when this is the only way to fulfill their desired love. As Lisa, a married woman, who is waiting for her own and her lover’s divorce to come through, says about her married lover, "Since all my life I have been waiting for a love like this, I am ready to further wait for him to be mine." In such cases the profundity of love justifies the temporary delay in the implementation of some of its shared activities. Similarly, lovers express willingness to compromise over the accompanying circumstances associated with true love, such as the freedom to be together whenever they want, but not over love itself. At the end of the day, these lovers believe that genuine love should make no compromises, but that the road to this paradise is full of unavoidable obstacles.

Love can then be both patient and impatient. It is advantageous to be able to distinguish between the two and to apply our patience and impatience accordingly.

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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