‘Patience’ (forbearing) derives 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 and equanimity in the face of adversity, from simple delay or provocation to grand-scale misfortune or calamity.
The Old Testament Book of Proverbs tells us that, ‘he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city’ (16:32, KJV), and also that, ‘by long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone’ (25:15). According to Ecclesiastes, ‘better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.’ In Buddhism, patience is named as one of the ‘perfections’ (paramitas), and, as in other religious traditions, extends to not returning harm. Thus, Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians exhorts, ‘be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men’ (5:14-15).
Although patience is often spoken of as a virtue, it can also be construed as a complex of virtues such as self-control, humility, tolerance, generosity, and mercy. Patience also belies several other virtues, not least ambition, hope, faith, and love. If patience is a virtue, it is because it tends to be beneficial—and also very difficult. There are several types of patience, including patience in the face of irritation, patience in the face of boredom, patience in the face of vindication, patience in the face of misfortune, and, most difficult of all, patience in the face of suffering.
The opposite of patience is, of course, impatience, but also hastiness, impetuosity, and perhaps even cowardice, suggesting that patience may have a lot in common with courage. Impatience is the inability or disinclination to endure perceived imperfection. It amounts to a rejection of the present moment born out of an evaluation that it is marred and ought to be supplanted by a more ideal future. More than that, impatience can amount to a rejection of human finitude. Patience recognizes that life is a struggle for each and every one of us. Impatience on the other hand takes offence at things that are not intended to offend, betraying a certain disregard, even contempt, for others, and, by extension, the order of nature.
Impatience implies impotence, which in turn implies frustration, which is sterile and self-defeating in that it serves no purpose other than to make us miserable and turn others against us, rendering us even more impotent and frustrated. Indeed, ‘frustration’ derives from the Latin frustra, ‘in vain, in error’, and is related to fraus, ‘injury, harm’. More subtly, but also more perversely, impatience leads to procrastination, since to put off a difficult or boring task is also to put off the irritation and frustration to which it is bound to give rise.
Today more than ever, patience is a lost virtue. Our individualistic society values ambition and action (or at least activity) above all else, but unlike, say, glamorous courage, patience seems to involve a withdrawal and withholding of the self. Neither is technology helping. In a recent study of millions of internet users, researchers found that, within just 10 seconds, about half of users had abandoned videos that did not start playing. Moreover, users with a faster connection were quicker to click out, suggesting that the pace of technological progress is rapidly eroding our patience. Indeed, much of today’s economy is geared at making things faster and reducing waiting times to next to nothing. In my books The Art of Failure and Hide and Seek, I argue that our increasing impatience has much to do with the manic defence, the essence of which is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control.
Even in the most propitious of times, the so-called ‘egocentric predicament’ makes patience difficult to exercise. Simply put, because I have privileged access to my own thoughts and feelings, I magnify them out of all proportion. If I am impatient in the queue, it is ultimately 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. Thinking that I could do a much better job of manning the till, I give dagger eyes to the cashier, failing to appreciate that she is coming at it from a different place and angle, and with different skills and abilities. An added source of impatience is with my impatience itself, as I vacillate between persisting in the queue and taking abortive action such as asking for another till to be opened, giving up on my shopping, or filing for divorce.
Patience can be looked upon as a decision-making problem: eat up all the grain today or plant it in the ground and wait for it to multiply. Unfortunately, man evolved as a hunter-gatherer, not as a farmer. Our ancestral shortsightedness, manifest in our strong tendency to discount long-term rewards, is borne out by the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a series of studies on delayed gratification led by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These studies, conducted on hundreds of mostly four- and five-year-old children, involved a simple choice: either eat this marshmallow now or within the next 15 minutes, or hold back for 15 minutes and be given another one. Having explained this choice to a child, the experimenter left the child alone with the marshmallow, only to return after the 15 minutes had elapsed. Follow-up studies carried out over 40 years found that the minority of children who had been able to hold back for a second marshmallow enjoyed significantly better life outcomes, including higher SAT scores, less substance misuse, and better social skills.
Even so, patience is more than the mere ability to await some future gain. Exercising patience (note the verb ‘to exercise’) is just like dieting or growing a garden: of course waiting is involved, but it is not just about waiting: there also needs to be a plan in place, and that plan needs to be worked at. When it comes to others, patience does not amount to mere toleration, but to a complicit engagement in their struggle and welfare, often at the expense of our own short-term welfare. In that much, patience is a form of compassion, which, instead of alienating people, turns them into friends and allies.
Rather than enfeeble us, patience frees us from frustration and its ills, delivers us to the present moment, and affords us the time and perspective to think, do, and say the right things—which is why, in psychotherapy, both patient and therapist can require several years together. Last but not least, patience enables us to achieve the greatest things. Being patient does not mean never complaining or giving up, but doing so in a considered fashion, never pettily or pointlessly, and never from an angry place. Neither does it mean withholding, just like ageing a case of fine wine for 10 years does not mean withholding from wine during all that time (God forbid). Life is too short to wait, but it is not too short for patience.
It is much easier to be patient if one can understand that patience can and does secure much better outcomes, not just for others but also and above all for ourselves. In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester decided to replicate the marshmallow experiment. However, before doing so, they split the children into two groups, exposing a first group to unreliable experiences (broken promises) and a second group to reliable experiences (honoured promises). They found that the children exposed to honoured promises waited an average of four times longer than the children exposed to broken promises. In other words, patience is largely a matter of confidence, or trust, or faith.
1. Krishnan and Sitaraman (2012). Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior. ACM Internet Measurement Conference, Nov 2012.
2. Mischel et al. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21 (2): 204-218.
3. 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.