Last time, we began to examine the view that patience is a virtue, by looking at the strengths of patience and the undesirable elements of impatience.
The patient person:
1. Subjectively has inner peace, confidence, and poise
2. Objectively has a calm demeanor and waits, when needed
The impatient person:
1. Subjectively has eagerness, anxiety, frustration, and even anger
2. Objectively has an action orientation, determination, persistence, but can also express frustration and anger
The subjective side of impatience is mostly negative. The objective side looks mostly positive, aside from the negative expression of unpleasant emotions.
And yet, consider those positive qualities that an impatient person can possess, like a tendency to take action and persist. They can have unfortunate implications in certain situations. An impatient person may act when waiting is better, and mess up everything in the process. But then, a patient person may wait when acting is better, and miss an important opportunity in the process. So, what’s it best to be: patient or impatient?
A virtue, by the way, is by definition a quality or habitual disposition that it’s always good to have. And haven’t we just seen that there are circumstances in which patience and impatience each are bad?
No, actually, not at all. Look again at our characterization of patience, subjectively and objectively. There are no circumstances in which those qualities would be bad to have. The patient person can wait when needed. The only negative sort of example we were able to give assumed waiting when it was both unneeded and counter-productive. The patient person can even share all the objectively positive qualities of the impatient go-getter: that action orientation, the persistence, determination, and even creativity in trying new things in pursuit of a goal. She just does all that with an inner calm that strengthens her and that the impatient person lacks.
Patience does look like a virtue. And impatience looks like a vice. Who needs all that negative emotion? But remember Aristotle's understanding of a virtue. Every virtue has two corresponding vices, a "too little" and a "too much." Connected to patience, the too little is obviously impatience. What's the too much? Clearly the tendency to wait even when waiting is not good, the tendency to simply quit and hope when beneficial action is still needed. We might jokingly say that such a person is "too patient," but that wouldn't literally be true, if patience is indeed a virtue and involves waiting only when it's needed.
So, in the end the only real puzzle is determining when it’s best to wait, and when it’s best to press ahead. And, as I mentioned last time, that requires discernment or wisdom. But more can be said as well. If you're in a situation where you're trying to make something happen, and it's not going as well or quickly as you wanted, you need to know whether to wait a bit longer or to act anew to push things along. You need to ask questions like these:
The Waiting Check List
1. Have I already done all I reasonably think I can do?
2. Is it even a little bit likely that further action would be counterproductive or alienating to others whose goodwill or assistance I might need?
3. Could my timetable itself be unreasonable, and based on insufficient considerations?
4. Am I possibly operating under any false assumptions about the need for things to happen now?
5. Could waiting patiently for a while allow me to do or develop other good things that impatient action would prevent?
If you get at least one "Yes" here, you have an indication that patient waiting might be good. The more affirmative answers, the more likely you should be patient and wait. For at least a while. But we always have to do cost/benefit analyses along the way. Waiting for a day or a week or a month can be desirable in situations where waiting a year or three years may not be, and could even be counterproductive. The more you know about your situation and what you're trying to make happen, the better you'll be able to do such analyses. But always ask yourself questions like these, above. And try to avoid the negative subjectives involved in the impatient mindset. A patient person can act with persistence, determination, and creativity, pushing and reminding, but without the detrimental emotions tied up with impatience. He or she just knows how to release and relax, and maintain the peaceful being that is behind masterful doing over the long run.
Patience, properly understood, can be an important virtue in an active life.