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Patience in the Age of Distraction

The meaning of patience has changed over time, but that hasn't made it any easier to practice.
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(Photo: HLPhoto/Shutterstock)

(Photo: HLPhoto/Shutterstock)

There is a bar of marzipan across the table from me, and I have told myself that I will not eat it until I have finished writing. Almost immediately, I entertained the possibility that I might write more quickly if I ate the honey almond treat first. But here I go, writing about patience, partly by forcing myself to practice it.

Much of our talk of patience today disguises itself with words like “attention,” “mindfulness,” and “time management.” Patience is required to pay attention to the article before us, to be mindful of the person in front of us, and to manage our time in such a way that we accomplish all the tasks required of us. Right now, I am thinking of the marzipan and how, instead of eating it, I want to write to the friend who first introduced me to the sweet delight. But I am writing of patience, and I will wait both to eat the marzipan and to write to my friend until I have finished.

Patience has come to mean tolerating delay, but historically it had to do with tolerating suffering. Having the patience to endure meant accepting affliction or pain without complaint.

The attention economy was scandalized recently by the research of Tony Haile, CEO of a company called Chartbeat. Studying “deep user behavior across 2 billion visits across the web over the course of a month,” Haile wrote that Chartbeat found “a stunning 55% spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page.” Chartbeat is interested in accurately measuring traffic, namely finding a better metric than pageviews since viewing a page seems to mean so little.

Our impatience is not discriminating; it does not limit itself to the Internet. We spend only a few seconds less on Web pages than we do some of the greatest works of art. A 2001 study in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts found that visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent on average only 17 seconds looking at masterpieces. That word reminds me of the bar of marzipan, a culinary masterpiece, because I remember a visit I made to Toledo, Spain, where baker’s window after baker’s window displayed perfect fruits and vegetables, cathedrals and creatures all shaped from marzipan.

BUT BACK TO PATIENCE, which seems to have everything to do with attention and nothing to do with distraction or procrastination. Patience has come to mean tolerating delay, but historically it had to do with tolerating suffering. Having the patience to endure meant accepting affliction or pain without complaint. Now I have complained a lot about the marzipan, which I suppose negates whatever claims I might make to the mantle of patience.

Patience today doesn’t necessarily require stoicism. It does require accepting delay, deferring reward and satisfaction. That is one of the reasons that economists are so interested in patience, since it seems to be what most of us economic agents lack. Every time I read a study about compound interest, I think, “Yes, this is what I must do: Put aside more money now so that decades from now there will be even more of it.” Yet, like the bar of marzipan on my desk, the money that I should save is tempting and my patience limited, so often what should be tucked away for tomorrow is spent today.

If only we were more patient, the economists suppose, then we could act rationally: Deferring today’s consumption for some future tomorrow, like the marzipan I have wanted to eat this whole time, but will delay until I am finished writing. The kind of patience and endurance required for savings isn’t easy, or even feasible for many households. The inequality of our nation’s wages recapitulates itself in our nation’s savings: The Bureau of Economic Analysis at the United States Department of Commerce chronicles the rise and fall of the personal saving rate (the ratio of personal saving to disposable personal income) from its peak in June of 1971 and December of 1973 at 14.4 percent to its current slump of 4.3 percent in January of 2014.

THERE IS THE MARZIPAN, still on the table, more likely to be eaten now than in any previous decade. There are many kinds of patience, and I do not mean to trivialize any of them with the marzipan. For me, the candy across the table is useful exercise, and it helps me understand why the other kinds of patience are so difficult. The impatience I have when waiting for the bus or the subway is the same kind: I wish for both to come sooner, for my desires to be fulfilled more quickly. The impatience I have when awaiting the outcome of some legislative debate or judicial hearing or crisis or conflict is the same kind: I wish for certainty and knowledge sooner than life can offer them.

The tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 dramatized this on big television networks and tiny Twitter streams: We all were impatient for resolution, unable to wrestle with such uncertainty. When we rage at cable news shows for speculating, we realize their speculations are responding to our desires. Thinking back to Chartbeat, that is one of the reasons we spend so little time on any single piece of news or information: We assume more will follow, what we are reading now is only a sample, not definitive, only speculative. Better to half-read 10 things now than wait a few hours or a few days for a single thing that can sort through those impatient speculations.

But can the same patience that teaches us to stare at a bar of marzipan and not eat it serve us in these grander, more consequential periods of unknowing? I hope so. I hope that the habits of the everyday, when we are patient with ourselves and with our friends, can serve us when extraordinary doubt or suffering presents itself. That is, of course, what is meant by the old saying that patience is a virtue. Patience is something we can cultivate in ourselves, a pattern of living that can be practiced in small trials, like the marzipan, to prepare us for the greater trials, whatever they may be.