Friday, May 04, 2012

Patience & Privilege

My wife drew my attention this evening to a Facebook post by a friend of hers which read, "Whoever said patience is a virtue never had to wait for anything." At first, this struck me as pseudo-wisdom. (Cf. Bo Derek: "Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.") But then it occurred to me that perhaps there are two possible redeeming interpretations:
(a) that waiting is just part of life, and so there's nothing particularly virtuous about waiting without losing your head.

(b) that "virtue" is the language of the privileged (or the bourgeois), and part of being a member of the privileged class is that you usually don't actually have to wait in the ways that the underprivileged do. (The privileged don't wait for the bus.) To think that patience is a virtue is the result of a narrow understanding of what life is like for most people, which connects this interpretation to the first one.
However, I don't know whether either of these interpretations really, fully works. The quip looks more like a complaint: "waiting sucks." Indeed. And presumably it sucks even more if one lacks patience or if what one is waiting for isn't really worth the wait. If there's any truth in the attempts to redeem the complaint, it's that it can clearly be condescending and show a kind of bad faith (in a master-slave sort of way) for someone to tell another, who is being forced to wait unreasonably or unjustly, that since patience is a virtue, he or she should not complain. So I can see the legitimacy of something like this complaint when "patience" is invoked as a means of controlling others. But what's requested by the "master" in such cases is not patience so much as servility. And so the problem here isn't that genuine patience is not a virtue.


  1. I think your (b) is in fact an interpretation that "really, fully works". But your suggestion that "the problem here isn't that genuine patience is not a virtue" makes me feel like developing this into one further particular direction. More generally, I have long felt some discomfort about virtues and their genuineness that has not received the attention I think it deserves. Some people are more patient than others without making any effort to be exceptionally patient - either congenitally or because there is something in their life history (parenting, whatnot) to make them so.

    I have myself been congratulated on "virtues" which the congratulators view me as having, while my own view of the matter is that they're nothing of the sort, because that's just the kind of person I am. And such congratulations have always made me extremely uncomfortable in a very particular way, which is hard to put into words.

    So, "Whoever said patience is a virtue never had to wait for anything" can be interpreted in part to mean "Whoever said patience is a virtue was socially privileged enough never to have to wait for anything" - your (b) - but it can also be interpreted as "Whoever said patience is a virtue was psychologically robust enough never to experience anything as waiting".

  2. "Whoever said patience is a virtue was psychologically robust enough never to experience anything as waiting".

    Maybe. But then I wonder whether the person who was, as it were, congenitally patient would see it as a virtue or rather just as "normal." I suppose that the discomfort with "congratulations" in such a context is a function of the fact that you didn't have to put any effort into cultivating those "virtues" on which others congratulated you. Is that part of it? That congrats should be reserved for achievements of some sort? (Otherwise, it's kind of like being congratulated for winning the lottery...) Of course, such congratulations might also draw attention to beneficial traits we have, that come easy to us, which others lack, and perhaps sometimes need or wish they had. And perhaps then our attention is drawn precisely to the ways in which we are "lucky." (And recently, upon such thoughts, I'm drawn back to Weil's reminders about affliction and the fact that everything that makes me "the kind of person I am" could at any moment be taken away...)