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Why patience isn’t always a virtue

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“Have patience!” How often do we hear these words when we are frustrated, eager for a specific change, or fired up for right and injustice? Patience is glorified as a virtue in our culture, equated with prudence, wisdom, and trust in a higher power‘s timing. Some would even say that there is a tyranny of Patience.

We are often told that patience is a virtue. As children, we learn the merits of patience by waiting silently in supermarket lines, waiting days or weeks for a promised reward, and slowing down to let others go first. We enter adolescence impatient for freedom and adulthood, only to be met with the same refrain: “Have patience.”

But what if patience, at times, enables inaction in the face of preventable harm? What if patience reflects complacency more than courage or justice? Is patience really what we think of it? Isn’t there something else we can rely on instead of being patient? 

The psychological appeal of patience

There is a psychological appeal in patience. To wait calmly signifies self-control and poise. We pride ourselves on persevering stoically in long lines and traffic jams, wearing our endurance like a badge of honor. When we counsel others toward patience, we position ourselves as wise mentors restraining the reckless impulses of youth. “You just need to be patient”, or “Wait and see”. Some of us so often have been told that. By framing patience as maturity, we flatter egos and gloss over complicity with potential harm. 

Patience is quite seductive. For the individual, it promises emotional calm, suspension of desire, and faith in long-term rewards. For society, patience preserves stability and gradual change, keeping unruly impulses in check. There is a romantic notion that if we wait long enough with equanimity, conditions will improve. Patience flatters our sense of wisdom and self-restraint. We convince ourselves that slow and steady prudence wins the race.

This notion also spans philosophical traditions. A core tenet across schools of thought is that patience indicates trust, acceptance, and spiritual peace. But why does patience retain such romanticized allure? We can say that it’s because beyond flattering our self-control, patience grants reassurance. Believing that good things come to those who wait fosters hope during hardship. But gradualism is too easily co-opted as an excuse for complacent inaction. And specially when circumstances are unjust, patience can lead or keep us in unwanted situations. 

“Patience” can disempower us

The glacial pace of change throughout history tells us that patience alone rarely inspires social progress. As a simple example, if the oppressed throughout history had been universally patient, would we have seen an end to any of the injustices that inspired revolutions and activism? You tell me. 

History brims with tragic examples where the oppressed were told to wait patiently for their rights rather than demanding change. I have my personal opinion about feminism, but we can agree that early suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton devoted their lives to securing women’s right to vote. Many insisted women should patiently rely on men’s better natures to extend rights in time. Today, we recognize the absurdity of waiting decades for basic equality that requires urgent redress. We also acknowledge now that colonial independence movements could not afford to wait for colonizers’ benevolence. 

More often, patience serves the powerful, who benefit from the status quo. For the marginalized, patience can be an imperative imposed by those who will not be harmed by waiting indefinitely. Patience governs the powerless by convincing them their desires for change are naive and reckless. The marginalized are lectured about patience without acknowledging how much easier waiting proves for the privileged. Impatience is frequently cast as an emotional, rebellious agenda driven only by individual grievances. Characterizing marginalized voices as impatient delegitimizes their pain as irrational outbursts. 

Not surprisingly, those facing systemic inequities cannot afford patience, biding time for the privileged to notice. In that regard, Martin Luther King wrote the following from his Birmingham jail cell:

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.

Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Patience lets people exert control over others. Framing others’ urgency as unreasonable imposes our preferred timeline. Parents invoke patience to govern children’s development. Bosses manage workers by making them wait for promotions and privileges. Culturally, privileged groups time justice to their comfort, not the needs of the oppressed. While chiding the impatient, they assure change will come eventually if everyone would just settle down. The moderates assured civil rights would slowly advance, even as racist violence and disenfranchisement devastated lives.

Cultural change comes gradually, but legal and social institutions have an obligation to urgently protect citizens from harm because those facing injustice cannot passively wait around, while privileged groups debate the timing. Justice cannot always move at the glacial speed of tolerance. 

We naturally don’t like being patient 

We don’t like to wait for anything, and there is a reason for that. We want to survive, to live to the fullest, and part of the process is for us to get what we need whenever and wherever we need it. When what we need does not exist, whenever we have enough clarity about what it is, we go and create it. We invented agriculture because we did not want to wait on nature to give us food.

We invented industrialization and transportation to speed up our production. We also invented automation and created artificial intelligence because we want things to go even faster and with less possible effort. Nature already has its own dynamic, running at its own pace. But this same nature gave us the capacity or the necessity to take control of it and make things go faster. 

We naturally don’t like waiting for things to happen. There is a collective consciousness that makes us aware we are not living indefinitely, thus forcing us to make the most out of life as quickly as possible. 

In this 21st century, there are 2 opinions in relation to our ways of living that have caught my attention. The first one is related to the fact that so often individuals are told self-improvement requires lifelong patience. Life long patience for me means I may have a chance to achieve my goal of self-improvement, but only by the end of my life. So, why even call it patience if we have to spend our life pursuing a goal that we would prefer to achieve while being alive. And even more than that, how about when dealing with harms like addiction where patience can mean indefinite suffering? 

The second one is related to how individuals are criticized online for their “short attention span”. In reality people like to diversify their experiences. And, thanks to our technologies, we have access to so much more things than what we can actually experience during a lifetime. On the web, progressively, but without being necessarily conscious about it, we have learned to monitor the time we spend on each experience.

If there are several billions of videos, articles and other type of content that you can have access to on the web, why would you spend more than 1 minute on something you feel, just within the first minute of interaction with it, won’t bring you enough value for your time? In fact, there is probably a need for a scientific research that would answer the following question: Did we really ever enjoyed paying a lot of attention to anything, just for the sake of having a long attention span? In the did time, allow me to say that I think we just did not have enough options.

In the 21st century, the internet made everyone-and-their-mother agree on being a creator, including myself by the way, and because of that they are more content to consume than attention to actually pay to them. I believe that we always had a short attention span. The only difference now is that we just have more of what I would call the “rational freedom” to express it, involuntary or not.

Patience is not measurable 

Part of the appeal of patience also comes from its simplicity. It bypasses thorny discernment of when to wait and when to act. But this simplistic binary between patience and impatience ignores context. When do we know we are patient, patient enough, or just impatient? And does that even matter? A quick comparison between the communication technologies available in 16th century and those of 21st century can help us better understand.

Let’s assume that being patient in the 16th century meant to calmly wait for about 60 days to send a letter from Europe to any place in the “discovered new world”. If that was so, what is patience in this 21st century when you are on average at 60 seconds away from landing in a friend’s inbox from anywhere in the world? 

The power of impatience: opportunity to be entrepreneurial 

We just saw that patience is sometimes just a pretext to feel good about yourself for not acting when we are not capable of action or because we just don’t want to act. It can disempower us, in circumstances, and we, as human beings, just don’t like to wait. Fortunately enough, human nature gives us a drive to envision and create a better world. As naturally impatient beings, instead of waiting we innovate. And that’s the power of us cultivating impatience. 

Cultivating impatience does not mean acting rashly, disregarding consequences. History shows that well-timed and directed impatience achieves results that unreasonable and self-limiting patience rarely yields. Pressure from activists cultivated justified impatience with the intolerable status quo of segregation, leading to the civil rights movement’s gains. Righteous impatience regarding poverty, corruption, and inequality has toppled many dictatorships during democratic revolutions around the world.

Now, how do we build skills for wise action rather than problematic patience? First, be thoughtful and curious. Always ask yourself if you really have to wait for whatever it is and why. This helps you better understand the reason behind the necessity to wait. Secondly, once you understand the obstacle, build initiative.

Think about if, how, and when you can create a solution that can help you get what you want, and quicker. When you do that you help yourself, and you help human kind because other people may be enchanted to use your solution and you can in the process create a business around your solution. 

If you think about it, most of the biggest businesses in the world were created because someone either created and/or productized a solution that helped people get access to an experience that makes life better with no need for the beneficiary to wait for too long.

By the end of the 19th century, animal power was too slow and in general inefficient. So, instead of being blindly patient with the horses, donkeys, oxen pulled wagons, coaches and buggies we created and productized automobiles and trains. And the people who were part of the automotive transportation phenomenon got really rich.

Next time you’re in a situation where you are forced to wait for longer than you would agree to, for something you want, just brainstorm about how you can contribute to make your life and the life of other people who have the same problem as you easier, and eventually create a business in the process. 

In other words, initiate actions rather than stalling. Cultivate courage and decisiveness. Again, this does not mean rushing headlong without thought, because initiating action in that matter requires disciplining our impulses for rashness and considering context. 

So…

To conclude, is patience always a virtue? By now you should know the answer for yourself. But for me personally, I mainly see an obligation to wait as both a reminder and an opportunity, but not some human quality that makes me better than other people. It’s a reminder of the fact that we are still so limited with so much more to do in order to have a better life. It’s a reminder that there is room for improvement, and consequently an opportunity for me to contribute to the improvement of life.

It’s important at the same time to always remember that situations exist where the smart thing is to be prudent. But, don’t fall for the false magic and romance of an ideal universally appropriate behavior called patience.

Anytime you have the occasion ask yourself if waiting really helps, if it’s even necessary, and what can be done to safely speed up processes and make life more enjoyable. This takes courage, initiative, and sometimes forceful disruption of complacency. When you do that you may not be able to create a solution yourself, but you can partner with other people, or just make them aware there is something that deserves to be fixed. Worst case scenario you would identify a problem and eventually help create a solution that helps, because we all know that the first step to fix a problem is to be aware of his existence. 

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David Celestin
David Celestin

David Celestin is a diplomat turned creator and entrepreneur. David Celestin holds bachelor's degrees in Law, Philosophy & Political Science. He also holds a Master's degree in Management, has been a diplomat for over 7 years, and is now an entrepreneur and a content creator. Sharing his life lessons. Book your free business consultation

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