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impatiently looking at watch

On Being Impatient

June 7, 2023


Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century.

―Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The strongest of all warriors, are these two — time and patience.

—Leo Tolstoy

We are too impatient.

Slaves to efficiency, devotees of multitasking, disciples of expediting, we are a tragically foot-tapping and dangerously inattentive breed. 

Just think about it. Modern politicians communicate in tweets and sound-bytes. Movie images have rocketed from sixteen frames to three hundred frames per second. Even our cursory texts and tweets aren’t brief enough so we use shorthand, emojis, and GIFs. And compared to the old days when you sauntered over to the family World Book Encyclopedia or down to the library to find resources by pouring through the card catalog, the speed with which Google or ChatGPT can answer our questions is downright stunning.

And still we are impatient.

When you are reading an essay or article on your phone, ask yourself how many seconds pass before you start scrolling to see how long it is? I remember the first time I came across the abbreviation TLDR—“too long, didn’t read.” Someone had employed it—for a five hundred word essay. I thought it was clever until I realized it was actually tragic. TLDR epitomizes our stunted attention span. “Make it fast, or make it go away.” We are spoiled by speed. We are recklessly impatient. And with our impatience, we lose wonder and discernment. 

In his brisk collection of essays, The Noise of Typewriters, Lance Morrow tells the odd story of Dr. Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor of natural history. Faced with an eager student yearning for this august mentor, Agassiz would pull a large and very dead fish from its formaldehyde-filled jar, slop it down on a tin tray, and tell the student. “Look at your fish.” 

The student, perplexed, would be left alone for an hour, only to stutter and stammer some unsatisfactory answers once the professor returned. Frowning and shaking his head, Dr. Agassiz, would repeat, “Look at your fish,” and once again walk away. 

Apparently this exercise would last hours over several days until the exhausted student began to really see the fish in all of its wonder—complexity that transcended its “facts.” Reflecting on this story, Morrow wrote, “Never be certain that there is no meaning. Never be certain about anything too quickly.”

Morrow also champions the meticulous work of Robert Caro. Caro has spent decades writing only a few books (one on New York City urban planner Robert Moses, and four on President Lyndon B. Johnson—with a fifth on its way). His work is so meticulous that it borders on the obsessive-compulsive. For the smallest of details, Caro would spend an inordinate amount of time getting the story “just right.” Obviously, Morrow rightly notes, this is the characteristic of a biographer and not a journalist on deadline. As a matter of fact, Caro found himself financially strapped many times during his endeavors. But his work, in which he “turns every page,” is unparalleled in its completeness. “Truth,” Caro insists, “takes time.”

Truth takes time, but we don’t like that. We want our answers now. Served up piping hot. Chop-chop. But by instantly obliterating the chasm between our curiosity and our apprehension, we may not grow. Where there is no struggle to define terms, no wrestling for clarity, no consideration (much less re-consideration) of why our question even matters in the grander scheme, no fundamental waiting just so that things can simmer, we grow intellectually (and, at times, spiritually) flabby. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, even at the base of the formidable Mt. Purgatory, the august poet Virgil implores strangers to share the secret of how to move expeditiously from Purgatory’s interminable antechamber. “For who knows most,” Virgil taps his foot, “him loss of time most grieves.”

In a wide-ranging 2003 interview, essayist and raconteur, Joseph Epstein, told a story of patience misunderstood,

I have a cousin who died recently. A guy named Sherwin Rosen, who I loved, really. He was the chairman of the Economics Department at Chicago and at a memorial dinner for him this man Gary Becker who won a Nobel Prize in Economics said, “You know when Sherwin was a graduate student here we almost canned him because he was slow in response. If you asked Sherwin a question, he would say, ‘Gee, I am not certain,’ and then he would come back a month later. He brooded on these things. But he saw aspects in the question none of us did. Becker said being fast in response is one of the things we look for in good students. But it’s a mistake.”

To think upon the question, in spite of pressures. How wonderful. “Live the questions for now,” as Rainer Maria Rilke suggested. “Everything must be carried to term before it is born.” Maybe in the unforced quiet, the unmarked hours, the unencumbered contemplation, we will arrive at good sense and clarity. 

G.K. Chesterton once noted, “It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” If that is the case, then I would nominate patience as the minor virtue that, if employed diligently, contradicts our dizzy, harried, and wayward generation the most. As such, following Chesterton’s reasoning, perhaps patience is the most equipped to convert us.

Let’s patiently see if it does.