My essays have appeared for about a dozen years on LA Progressive, and I consider myself a progressive. One of my worst faults is impatience, which recently I’ve been working hard to minimize. As part of that effort, I just completed reading Matthew Pianalto’s On Patience (2016). As I was doing so, I began to wonder if impatience is more characteristic of us (progressives) than say of conservatives.
The remainder of this essay will both review Pianalto’s book and reflect on that question, as well as the larger one of whether we as a nation in this Internet Age are becoming more impatient.
First, the last question. Earlier this August The New York Times’ Ezra Klein wrote an opinion piece entitled “I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message.” In it he stated “Online life got faster, quicker, harsher, louder…Smartphones brought the internet everywhere…We didn’t want to be bored, and now we never would be.” Those words fit in with an earlier Wikipedia article on patience I had scanned that stated, “Scientific studies of patience have led many social commentators to conclude that the rapid pace of technology is rewiring humans to be less and less patient.” As Pianalto writes, “No one likes to wait, and we are so often in a hurry.”
Regarding the second question, that is whether progressives tend to be more impatient than others, for example conservatives, my first reaction would be “yes.” The very word “conserve” suggests keeping something, preserving it; whereas progressives wanted and want change, more help and protections for the poor and minorities, more gun control, more environmental and business regulation, more protections for women including pregnant women’s rights.
Yet, in the USA at present, Trump supporters seem angrier and more impatient than progressives. It is they, at least some of them, more than progressives that seem impatient enough to go beyond the law and resort to violence. One could argue, however, that many of Trump supporters are not true conservatives. Thus, in our present society, there is no easy answer as to which political philosophy is more or less patient.
As to the third task of this essay, reviewing Pianalto’s book, I will first make some general comments about it, and then more specifically look at some reasons why the type of patience he advocates seems appropriate for progressives.
The book is partly a survey of comments about patience from significant figures from the past. Some of their ideas, Pianalto agrees with, some he doesn’t. He often refers to the Stoic philosophers, especially the Greek Epictetus and the Roman Seneca. He looks closely at the statement of Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I), who in the sixth century claimed that “patience is the root and guardian of all the virtues,” a statement that the book generally supports, at least if patience is viewed within the proper context. Pianalto believes that the greatest medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas, did not emphasize patience enough. But the author finds a surprising amount of support for the virtue in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka, who was reported to have said that patience “is the master key to every situation.” Pianalto also offers some supportive quotes from Søren Kierkegaard and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as from more modern thinkers like political philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
As someone who occasionally taught a college course on Comparative Religions and believes that non-Western religions offer some important truths, I liked Pianalto’s appreciation of insights from some Buddhist and Muslim thinkers, but wish he might also have commented on Taoist ideas regarding patience.
One of the reasons that Pianalto’s view of patience seems appropriate for progressives is that he insists that it involves more than passively waiting and putting up with whatever life throws at us. As he writes, “Patience is something that we can manifest and exercise even as we act, and which can help us to remain focused, mindful, and true to our ideals and goals. In short, patience is much more than merely waiting, for even when we wait, it is possible to do so either patiently or impatiently, wisely or foolishly.”
This view enables him to urge us to be more patient but at the same time reject a passive “patience” that accepts injustice. He argues that at time we should act and not just passively observe. “Patience doesn’t preclude active struggle,” he writes, but might be displayed “in accepting the challenges and the time that it would take to make changes to the situation.”
To illustrate his point, he indicates that at times Martin Luther King, Jr. criticized a narrow, passive type of patience. For example, in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” King defended “our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” And in his Why We Can’t Wait, he indicated that a good leader “must be sensitive to the anger, the impatience, the frustration, the resolution that have been loosed in his people. Any leader who tries to bottle up these emotions is sure to be blown asunder in the ensuing explosion.”
Yet, Pinalto thinks that “King’s approach was not in any deep sense impatient. Rather, it required a different kind of patience,” one that supported “other virtues such as courage and justice.” Pianalto even allows for what is sometimes referred to as “righteous anger,” as long as it is “not allowed to swamp our capacity for clear judgment,” as long as it does not seek revenge, but rather aims to correct injustice.
Almost nine years ago on LA Progressive my “What Is Progressivism?” appeared, and in it I indicated almost 20 progressive values to which I adhered. One set included “Humility, Tolerance, and Compromise”; another set was “Passion, Courage, and Sticktoitiveness.”
Since then I have often written of the necessity of those values, and at times even of the difficulty of reconciling some of them with each other. Two values that are not difficult to reconcile are humility and tolerance. As I have noted elsewhere, “Closely connected to humility is tolerance. . . . Know-it-alls tend to be intolerant. If, however, we are willing to admit our own limitations, we are more likely to recognize that others may have insights, perceptive abilities, or knowledge we lack. This recognition and genuine truth-seeking should make us more tolerant, and even welcoming, of other people’s views because what should be most important to us is not protecting our own fragile egos, but using all the means available, including the ideas of others, to arrive at truth. Humble people are also more tolerant of other people’s failings because they recognize and admit their own.”
This linkage is very much in keeping with Pianalto’s view that patience requires tolerance. He notes approvingly that “patience as tolerance is a crucial quality in Buddhist philosophy.” He also sees a strong connection between patience, humility, and love, and he quotes two philosophers who provide insight into this connection, the Frenchwoman Simone Weil and the English novelist, (as well as philosopher), Iris Murdoch. A year before his book appeared I had also quoted these same two thinkers on these interconnections, mentioning the connection between humility and patience and quoting St. Paul’s words that “love is patient.”
Regarding my second set of progressive values, “Passion, Courage, and Sticktoitiveness,” in LAP’s “7 Lessons Martin Luther King Can Teach Us Today” (Jan. 2019) I wrote of perseverance (or sticktoitiveness) and courage as being the second and third lessons that King could teach us.
Pianalto also often mentions that patience requires both virtues. He writes that “patient endurance . . . should itself be understood as a part of courage,” and “patience is not only the power of enduring evils but also, and more importantly, the power of persevering in our pursuit of good.”
About the need for persistence, passion, and a willingness to compromise, I wrote most recently (in mid-August) on LAP "The Inflation Reduction Act: A Victory of Pragmatism Over Ideology." It acknowledged that it is “a tough balancing act” to combine “a progressive passion for justice” with the need for compromise. And it mentioned that the former Sen. Ted Kennedy was one of the few who did it well. But I thought that in working out compromises with Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arz), Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) followed in Kennedy’s footsteps. The main lesson Schumer took from the whole process was keep persisting. “We kept persisting. We kept persisting with Senator Manchin. We kept persisting with Senator Sinema. And we got something, not everything everybody wanted, but something that's damn good.”
Pianalto’s final paragraph contains words about patience that I hope all progressives can embrace: “Patience also encourages us to broaden our vision, to listen to what others are too busy or too upset to hear, to cultivate a stillness of mind that makes it possible for us to be receptive to new ideas, to learn from others. . . . In these ways, patience draws us out of ourselves and our own specific pursuits and concerns so that we avoid narrow-mindedness and dogmatism. Patience thereby makes it possible for us to be more fully loving and just.”
Thus, Pianalto’s final advice to us, progressives and non-progressives alike, is by all means fight for justice, be passionate, courageous, and persistent—but also be patient.