Friday, March 16, 2012

When the going gets good, it's harder to be patient?

In Book 32 of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, On Patience and Thankfulness, al-Ghazali approvingly cites Sahl al-Tutsarī: "Patience in well-being is more difficult than patience in tribulation" (33). This seems rather peculiar, but perhaps less so if we understand al-Ghazali's conception of patience:
Let us call this quality that makes man different from the beast in [his] appetites and in their subjugation ‘religious impulse’…Let us call the pursuit of the appetites and their requirements ‘impulse of desire’…Let us understand that the struggle and warfare between the religious impulse and the impulse of desire are alternately successful. The battleground of this struggle is the heart of the servant….patience is the steadfastness of the religious impulse in confronting the impulse of desire. (15)
It may be tempting to think that al-Ghazali is talking about self-control, given the contrast of the "religious impulse" with the appetites, but given his allowance that in the struggle between these two impulses, each is sometimes successful, I think it is clear that what he's really talking about is not self-control so much as constancy, or as he puts it, steadfastness.

The distinction between self-control and constancy/steadfastness is, as it seems to me, a contrast between external and internal, a lapse in momentary behavior and a lapse, as it were, in the heart. A person might fail to live up to his or her own standards or commitments in a particular instance without having inwardly forsaken those standards or commitments, and the person who remains inwardly steadfast resists the temptation to fall into despair, to forsake those standards or commitments, in the face of his or her own momentary failure. Of course, we may wonder how often, or how severely, one can fail and it still make sense to believe--about another person or oneself--that a genuine commitment to those principles or standards exists. I want to put that aside for now.

So, back to the idea that, "Patience in well-being is more difficult than patience in tribulation." The point seems to be that steadfastness to a religious (and perhaps here we can also include a moral) standard can be more difficult when one is the beneficiary of much good fortune. I guess the idea is that it can be tempting to "go soft," to relax and enjoy one's good fortune, to give in to "appetites" and to forget about one's loftier religious or moral aims and ambitions. We can drift "off message." There's something interesting about this idea that I've been trying to extract from the specific religious context of al-Ghazali's work, as my suggestions above that this could be applied to moral ideals in addition to religious ones is meant to suggest. And maybe in other contexts, too. Readers of this blog may know (or have heard tell) of a professor who, after receiving tenure, "went soft" or "quit trying" or whatever. There may be various reasons for this (some of them acceptable, some of them not), but in some cases, it seems like failure, or a loss of drive, or disenchantment with teaching (or research), etc. This isn't normally what we mean by lacking patience, but patience does have something to do with steadfastness/constancy, and this inversion--that the good times can threaten our ability to stay focused in the pursuit of an ideal, even more than the bad times--seems like an important reminder.

On the other hand, I'm less sure this point is right when applied to other matters requiring patience. I'm much more patient with my children when I'm in a good mood and had a good day, than when I feel crappy and things didn't go well. Maybe this can be chalked up to the idea that patience, like willpower, as Baumeister understands it, is a resource that can be depleted (and needs "recharging" as it were, or rest).

Of course, al-Ghazali doesn't deny that patience is tested by adversity as well, and maybe the way of reconciling these two points would be to imagine circumstances in which my fortune is so good that I am tempted to "lose patience" with my kids in that I simply spoil them with stuff, fill their every desire (to avoid having to deal with temper-tantrums), and thus deprive them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with some adversity, denial, and failure every now and then. This makes me a bad parent, a parent who lacks the patience to allow his (or her) children to encounter and face the struggles necessary for growth into a mature, unsheltered, unspoiled human being. Arguably, that would be worse in the long run than merely yelling at them when I'm tired (which isn't good itself), would be a greater abdication of my responsibilities as a parent.

So, then, I suppose that the idea is that when fortune is good, it can be tempting to try to buy your way in (or out), rather than to earn it (whatever it is) fairly and squarely. The lack of patience in this case consists in a failure to put forth the right effort, an effort that adheres to sound principles and standards. This is the temptation in sports, I suppose, that manifests itself in players who think they no longer need to practice. They are so good that they can just show up. (And they're so rich that they can afford to pay the fines for missing practice.) But that can only last, if it ever does, for so long before things start to fall apart. Right?

No comments:

Post a Comment