Notes on Patience & Forbearance

by David_Gross2 min read23rd Dec 2020No comments

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This post examines the virtues of patience and forbearance. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.

What is this virtue?

If you have patience and forbearance you can gracefully put up with the usual slings and arrows that beset a human life. You can show patience in the face of boredom, suffering, difficulty, pain, wait, and annoyance. Forbearance usually means, more specifically, restraint in the face of difficult people. Someone with forbearance suffers fools gladly, because, well, why let their foolishness stop your gladness? A person with forbearance is slow to anger, and tolerant of insults and idiocy.

It is related to self-control / serenity / good temper (you don’t lose your cool), perspective and humility (it’s not all about you), charity / forgiveness / mercy / clemency / tolerance (you give other people more slack), dignity and grace (patience is a good look), endurance, and stoic acceptance.

The virtue of kṣānti (Sanskrit) seems to cover both patience and forbearance.

What good is it?

Levius fit patientia, Quicquid corrigere est nefas
(“What cannot be quite cured, is made easier by patience”)

―Horace, Odes

Patience makes it easier to acquire skills and to accomplish things that are difficult or time-consuming.

Impatience can make a bad situation worse, both by being an unpleasant thing in itself and by prompting us to make suboptimal decisions.

Patience is also a factor in the “attention span” that everybody seems to be complaining about in this day and age. By helping us to resist the eyeball-capturing techniques of clickbait instant gratification and peripheral ⓴notifications, patience helps us more rationally prioritize our time.

Patience makes it easier to avoid jumping to premature conclusions, and so it can help you to consider nuance, to change your mind, and to develop greater understanding of the unfamiliar.

(The Marshmallow Test is meant to measure a young child’s patience or willpower in one particular way, and was once thought to have extraordinary predictive power about that child’s later quality of life. It apparently is yet another victim of the social science replication crisis, however, so interpret it with caution.)

How to strengthen it

The theory of “ego depletion” (that people have a limited reserve to draw on for tasks like willpower, patience, and self-control, and that this reserve is depleted in various ways) is also disputed and remains under investigation. There does seem to be a folk intuition that patience is a depletable resource, as reflected in phrases like “I’m running out of patience.” I find it easier to be patient with something when I am well-rested, well-fed, unwearied, and not beset by distractions and stress from other quarters. Attention to environmental factors like these might be a useful way you can indirectly improve your patience.

Thubten Zopa (Virtue and Reality, 1998) recommended a method of training in forbearance, when you encounter a difficult person, that doubles as a way of immediately bolstering your patience. Instead of seeing the difficult person as someone who is being a jerk and trying to ruin your day, see them as someone who is sacrificing their own mental stability in order to provide you with exercises to strengthen your patience:

Ask yourself, “Where did I learn this patience that I practice? I learned it from those who have been angry at me… Therefore, all the peace and happiness that I enjoy in this and future lives as a result of my practice of patience has come from the angry person… How kind this person is! How much benefit this person has given me!”

This reminds me a bit of the advice from Marcus Aurelius: “Say to yourself in the early morning: today I shall meet meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and uncharitable men.” You are less likely to react with impatience if you habitually factor in a certain expectation of people being difficult sometimes.

Long lines at the post office, medical appointments that leave you sitting in the waiting room long past the scheduled time, traffic jams… you can recharacterize all of these as opportunities to strengthen patience and forbearance rather than as excuses to throw a tantrum.

Any task you want to accomplish or skill you want to learn that takes time and that involves some frustration and difficulty can be also an opportunity to strengthen your patience. If you look upon such tasks and skill-building in this way, this may increase the value you get from them (not only am I accomplishing X, but I’m also building patience!).

Meditation in particular removes other distractions so that you and your impatience can meet face to face. If you stare down your impatience, boredom, and fidgetyness in a meditative context, you may find that these things are more paper tigers than they had first appeared.

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