Radical Patience


Urban life seems to tell us that only fools show patience. If you’re waiting in line, and the people in front of you Have forgotten to move along, then it’s on you to urge them forward. Or if you apply for a job and hear nothing for several months, there’s no virtue in staying silent; if you want to know where you stand, you ask. In this environment, the people who accomplish things, or who seem to do so, are those who take fate by the horns and rattle it. It is those movers and shakers–legs in the air, hands gripping the Toro–who actually matter, or so it seems.

Celebrity lore perpetuates this idea. Famous people get huge book deals, and their books get *everyone* talking. Famous people make influential films about social issues. Famous people influence election outcomes, for better or for worse. Whenever these take a bite from a celery stalk, they send a tremor through the press. According to these exemplars, any worthy accomplishment in life comes loudly, with grand echoes; if your work lacks such dramatic response, it basically doesn’t exist.

But this celebrity model distorts things. Many accomplishments such as writing require not only persistence and “grit” but a subdued quality known as patience. The right kind of patience is far from foolish; taking time with things, letting them unfold, you come closer to understanding them. Patience allows for sorting and recombination; it puts immediate passions in perspective.

In this sense, patience does radical work. It rips a person away from immediate reactions and demands, away from the distortions of glitz and fame, into a perception of things that matter. Granted, it has dangers, especially when combined with wishful thinking. A person can wait and wait for nothing at all. It needs the mediation of good judgment.

Working on my book, I needed more patience than I first expected. I initially thought it would get snatched up by an agent–or rather, that this was expected of me. People were surprised to hear that I would devote a year to writing when I didn’t even have a publisher, so I figured, “I’ll have one soon.” It takes time to find one; not only that, but there’s something to be said for this stretch of time. It allows for serious thinking and revision along the way.

It is too soon for me to say anything definite, since I don’t have anything definite–but in terms of publication, I see some light ahead. Just what this light is, I don’t know. But the book will make its way into print, and the time will have helped it. I don’t think it would be where it is now if someone had seized it right away.

Too much waiting does no one any good; it can turn into sloth or procrastination. But neither one has shown its features here; while waiting, I have been working on the book and doing many other things.

How, then, does patience differ from grit? With grit, you are the one in control; with patience, not so. Patience is essentially passive (as its root suggests); this quality doesn’t get much respect in our “go for it” culture. But certain kinds of passivity make room for good; moreover, passivity and activity often combine. Patience does not equal a long nap or, at the other end of things, a long scream. It’s somewhere in the background, but not too far; while letting things happen, it stays alert and taut. It exists alongside impatience; there is a time for waiting and a time for saying “enough.” When to do which? To choose between the two, one must be capable of both; the bold word holds hours of holding back.


I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary.  “Pékség” means “bakery,” and baking, in many situations, requires patience. (Then again, it can also be done in a rush.)

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.