Patience is a virtue, they say, although you could never tell it from watching a driver hit the speed dial on his cell phone while in the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.
If it is a virtue, it is one of those quaint, Victorian or medieval virtues, like chastity or temperance, that seem completely beside the point in our modern world.
Ours is a world of channel-surfing, of Federal Express, of 24-hour Wall Street, of the Concorde.
When e-mail isn’t fast enough, we invent instant messaging.
Admit it: Haven’t you left something behind at Safeway because you just didn’t want to wait in the line?
Children cannot wait to be teenagers. Teenagers cannot wait to be adults. They are all in over their heads and don’t know it.
Adults cannot wait for the traffic light to change and gun their engines. They run up escalators and microwave their instant coffee.
If they could make their clocks run faster, they would.
And what do they gain by racing through the day?
A few moments to squeeze in something else too hectic to notice as it passes by.
It is our national impatience on each Election Day that we want to know the results before the ballots are actually counted. How has that worked out?
Don’t blame the media: It is our demand for instant results that drives the networks.
But, on the other hand, we should blame media.
I don’t mean “the press,” for which “the media” is often used as a synonym but rather the actual mediums of communication: the television, the computer, the iPhone.
We live in two competing time realities. Media time rushes at the speed of the electrons that form it.
Our computers run at a speed clocked in gigahertz, and if tomorrow they run at terahertz, we’ll trade in our outdated desktop.
But underneath it, there is the time that there has always been: The solar time that is barely perceptible, plodding at the pace of starfish crossing undersea rocks.
In our media experience, everything flies by, helped by keyboard shortcuts.
It confuses us into thinking we live in a fast-paced world. But we don’t. We live in a slow-paced world that is chronicled by ever-faster media. A day still takes a full 24 hours to cycle.
Because so many of us work on computers and spend our leisure time watching video screens, it is easy to mistake the mediated world for the real one. We are social creatures, and the means we have created for communicating with each other can seem primary rather than derivative.
Our new gospel might read, “In the beginning was the flicker.”
The problem is that the faster we speed up our interaction with the world, as mediated by our technology, the less we are actually engaged with the world we live in. Instead, we are engaged with our iPhones, leaving our world to fend for itself.
This was brought home all the more forcefully the last time I went to the zoo.
We visited with a friend’s 8-year-old boy and watched as he paced from exhibit to exhibit, looked in for a maximum of 10 seconds and moved on to the next animal.
Trained by the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, he expected instant animal action: The big cat should roar, the antelope should pronk. That is what they do on television, where all the “boring parts” are edited out.
The zoo, because it was there, in real time before his eyes, was a terrible disappointment. He hadn’t the patience to stand for a half-hour in front of the exhibit to see what animals actually do, as they sleep, scratch their furry behinds and tear the rinds off tangerines with their teeth.
The result wasn’t just boredom. It was a failure to identify with the animals, to scratch his bottom like the monkeys or to feel his own teeth in those tangerines. A failure of empathy.
What he sees on television are just pictures: information he can manipulate.
There is nothing human about it. It is experience as flat as the video monitor. But there in front of him at the zoo, if he had the patience to see it, is a 3-D world, one infinitely complex and fascinating. It contains not only unexpected behaviors, it contains sounds and — most pungently — smells that the iPad experience cannot deliver.
At such times, we can recognize that impatience is a vice. It blocks our understanding and our growth as humans. It diminishes the world and worse, shrinks our engagement with it.
The reverse is also true: The reason that patience is a virtue — and one worth cultivating even in the 21st century — is that it provides a chance to escape our egos.
It gives us the opportunity to empathize, at real time and with real beings, so that we may act morally and ethically.
Patience allows you to seep into the world and become part of it instead of just moving it efficiently from the in-box to the out-box, stamped by your momentary attention.
Instead of making life boring, patience makes it exciting and keeps us involved in it.