I remember my mother saying that to me if I was antsy, waiting for her to finish dressing so we could go somewhere, waiting for her to get off the phone… waiting… waiting… waiting. The implication of course, was that I was impatient – focused on my needs now – and challenged by measuring time from another’s viewpoint.
In general, we view patience as a virtue. But what if it isn’t?
So how do we define virtue?
Try this on for size – an exalted, admired, and positive trait or behavior. Well, that was my guess, which wasn’t too far off though a bit idealistic.
I looked the term up and found the following definition of virtue:
morally good behavior or character; chastity in a woman; manly strength or courage (valor); a commendable quality or trait…
Incidentally, this is the definition of patience:
… the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset; forbearance, tolerance, restraint.
Well that all sounds saintly – and at times, extremely valuable. Certainly skills to aspire to. Then again, some of us excel at practicing patience when it comes to waiting for others to deliver on promises, waiting for “our time to come,” waiting… waiting… waiting…
Patience as a Coping Skill
Psychology Today suggests that patience is a useful tool. In “The Power of Patience,” psychiatrist Judith Orloff refers to:
… patience as a coping skill… Frustration is not the key to any door. Patience is a lifelong spiritual practice as well as a way to find emotional freedom…
But is it as simple as that?
Quite possibly, if we’re stuck in a traffic jam, powerless to change the situation, and no one is playing mind games or intentionally keeping us in a holding pattern. But what if you’re expected to be patient constantly? What if there’s something more going on in your willingness to acquiesce to the “waiting” request? Is patience emotional freedom or behavioral captivity?
Dr. Orloff continues:
… Another long line. Telemarketers. A goal isn’t materializing “fast enough.” People don’t do what they’re supposed to… How to deal with it all? You can drive yourself crazy, behave irritably, feel victimized… Or, you can learn to transform frustration with patience.
But what if it isn’t so cut and dry? What if patience – along with other virtuous characteristics – are aspects of our skill sets and temperament that we need to moderate? Can’t virtues go too far, not only to our own detriment but to the detriment of others?
The Dark Side of Virtue
Psychology Today explores this concept in “When Virtue Becomes Vice,” examining the darker side of strong traits we typically think of as positive, illustrating how our most lauded qualities – fairness and confidence, for example – taken to an extreme, are anything but desirable.
Mary Loftus, associate editor of Emory Magazine, does an excellent job of examining this issue, and refers to Fear Your Strengths, written by Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan, who say:
… in their collective 50 years of business consulting and executive coaching, they’ve seen virtually every virtue taken too far.
In organizational life, can’t we all come up with examples of the leader who takes confidence (a virtue) too far – right up to and over the edge into arrogance and thus mars his or her leadership skills?
Can’t we all recall times when our perfectionism – a desire to perform to our highest possible levels – became a problem? In business, while we all strive for excellence, aren’t there times when “very good” is the superior result because excellence in every product or service may come at too high a cost, causing negative ripple effects in other areas? We may not like to say as much, but isn’t that the reality?
Returning (Impatiently) to Patience
In musing on my mother’s tendency to tell Yours Truly to cool my jets (and wait), I recognize that she was relying on my tendency to be obedient, my desire not to displease her, and too often – a general disregard for anyone’s timetable or priorities except for her own. Yes, insert narcissistic symptom here ___________________, along with many others.
My willingness to be patient often led me to hit a frustrating wall and worse – a dismal sense of perpetual impasse. I was patient up to a point, and then I sulked, skulked away, or stormed off (in adolescence). Patience was not a virtue; my agreeable nature (or obedience) got me nowhere, including no attention, no respect, and no result. As a mature adult, I wonder if I carried this “waiting patiently” behavior into my professional life, as I advocated for everyone but myself, thus hampering career advancement.
In looking at patience in light of women and their ambitions, I also wonder if we socialize our daughters differently in this area of behavior as well. Are we more likely to expect (and demand) patience of girls? More likely to reward disregard of patience from our boys?
The Virtues of Qualified Virtues
Certainly, what is virtuous is subjective, though every culture has its ideals of virtuous behavior – honorable standards of belief and behavior to which we would all adhere – in a “perfect” world.
But the world is messy, constantly evolving, and decisions are not typically clear cut. As Ms. Loftus points out in great deal, using examples of excellence, agreeableness, fairness and more – there is a cost when we cross a line into an excess of what we consider virtuous.
We may find ourselves taken advantage of, paralyzed by the messiness of reality, and we’d be far better off if we could find virtues she describes as “workable, if not perfect solutions.”
So what are we to conclude. Moderation in all things – even in lofty objectives and striving to be our better selves?
Apparently so. After all, curiosity killed the cat, power corrupts, and patience isn’t always a virtue.
You May Also Enjoy