[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]
An old man shared his deepest regret. "I wish," he said, "that I had understood the unfolding of time."
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 (paramitas) 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.
Whereas patience recognizes that life is a struggle for each and every one of us, impatience takes offence at people for being the way they are, betraying a kind of disregard, even contempt, for human nature in its finitude.
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." In a book called The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, I argued that such restless impatience is an expression of the manic defence, 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-modern, pre-technological times, the "egocentric predicament" made it difficult to exercise patience. Because I have privileged access to my own thoughts, I blow them out of all proportion and, as a result, lose perspective over a situation. 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, about whom I know nothing at all. 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 he or she is coming at it from a different angle 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 queue, changing queues, 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 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.
Patience is a form of compassion
Even so, patience involves much more than the mere ability to hold back for some future gain, as some of the children did. Exercising patience (note the use of 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 an 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.
The power of 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.
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.
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 honours too distant to the person who prepares himself for them with patience." "Genius," said Michelangelo, "is eternal 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 an average of four times longer than the children from the first group.
In other words, patience is largely 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.