Oh, sure, a certain amount of patience is required to get through life. But at some point, it becomes a problem. Sort of like you can graduate from getting enjoyably tipsy on Friday nights to having a serious drinking problem, you can get more and more patient until it tilts all the way over into dangerous passivity.
I’m saying this because I think I have a patience problem.
I think it got serious around November 2005, after I’d gotten laid off from a software marketing job and decided to spend some of my severance check on a new tattoo. For the first minute or two, I seriously regretted paying a man with strange facial hair to poke me with a sharp object, but then I stared at the ceiling and breathed slowly and lost myself somewhere on the other side of the pain, which really isn’t more than a minor discomfort, to be honest. That was when the real pain began: I realized that I was using the same skills I’d developed over the past six months at work. I realized that for months, I’d been just lying still and waiting for it to be over.
There had been rumors of layoffs for at least a year, intensified whispers and instant messages, sudden surges of people making sure they were connected on LinkedIn, fearing their at-work email addresses would disappear. For the last few weeks, when I was really sure I was going to get the axe, I didn’t do much more than read news online and try to sleep at my desk.
Sounds like a dream job, right? I hated it, because I was waiting. Yes, also because I wanted to be doing something useful, but mostly because it was just day after day of passivity. It’s depressing to know you’re sponging off the hard-working officemates. And I definitely had co-workers who cared, who did real work.
Eventually, my patience was rewarded: Along with ten percent of the other employees, I got sent home with a severance check and a phone number to dial for unemployment benefits. You don’t get those if you quit. You get those for suffering patiently. Good things come to those who wait, you know.
“Patience is a virtue” is pernicious. It starts out when you’re a kid. Dinner’s not ready, be patient. Christmas isn’t going to come for six more months, be patient. We’re not there yet, be patient. Later, you learn that patience is the only cure for a cold, a hangover, a heartbreak. It’s the only way to sit through a tattoo or a boring meeting. Eventually you begin to develop patience waiting for things like job satisfaction, or love, or justice, and then you look up and you realize you’re really just waiting for death.
Good things come to those who wait, you know.
It’s an echo, in some ways, of the medieval Catholic doctrine that heavenly afterlife is a justification for misery on earth, and the virtue of patience is the way you get it. Beginning in the mid-1950s, liberation theology tried to shake that up, demanding social justice and progress during mortal life, but it didn’t get very far before getting tarred as socialist and disavowed by the theologians in Rome as well as the economic theorists of Chicago and Washington.
You still see that tendency today in theÂ newspaperÂ columnists railing againstÂ the “culture of instant gratification.” Yes, free-market society provides a bewildering array of instant something, but most of it is a distraction from the fruitless wait for true satisfaction, for love, for justice. All those op-eds claim that what people need is more patience in pursuing longer-term goals, and they may be right, but on the other hand, maybe people need to start trying to achieve their longer-term goals sooner. Maybe patience is just an excuse for letting pain linger more than it needs to. Patience, in that case, is a trap, a disease.
What scares me, though, is that it’s worse. What if patience is just like that instant frivolity that op-ed curmudgeons love to hate? What if it’s just just another way we distract ourselves from the everpresent nature of pain and unhappiness?Â What if,Â patient or not,Â all we get is a series of meaningless distractions, short-term solutions that do nothing more thanÂ hold us over until, in the long run, we are all dead?