On waiting and impatience

People are impatient. Probably you’ll hear someone complaining about impatience in others in the next month or so. Possibly that conversation will also make points about the youth of today in connection with the need for instant gratification and modern technology’s corrupting influence on humanity, but it’s all about the same thing really.

At the heart of impatience is that waiting is actually horrible. No one wants to wait. Waiting is boring and can be very stressful. Even when it’s just boring we usually try to fill the time somehow – a job assisted by mp3 players, handheld games consoles, newspapers, books, etc. This is so that we can pretend to ourselves that we are doing something, not merely waiting. Waiting for a train is much less enjoyable than travelling on the train although most people have nothing to entertain them on the train that they did not have on the platform; once you’re on the train you can relax for a time rather than actively waiting.

The worst type of waiting is waiting for something that we are afraid of, in which case the waiting and fearing is often far worse that the thing we dread. This can lead to a moderately unpleasant thing becoming disproportionately terrifying, whether it be a visit to the dentist, an exam or even just talking to someone we’d rather avoid. The doctor’s waiting room is a very stressful place, despite the antique magazines scattered on the occasional tables and the bright but tatty toys for little children. Even if you’re only there for the most minor reason and had no concerns at all about your health when you walked through the door, ten minutes of waiting under signs advising you of the major signs of depression, telling you to get tested for chlamydia and pointing you to your nearest agrophobics’ support group, and hypochondria will be setting in fast. Worse than the induced hypochondria (and now of course you are very conscious of how many things you could catch from other patients) is the secret fear that they have already called your name, you failed to hear them and you will be here waiting for the rest of your life.

Some kinds of waiting are less arduous these days than they used to be. The eager young man waiting to meet his date outside the restaurant no longer has to wonder if he’s been stood up when in fact she only missed her bus because he has already received her text message. He still has to wait but instead of waiting assailed by doubts and exaggerated fears he is merely bored and plays a simple game on his mobile while his lovely lady travels towards him.

I would suggest that impatience is the default human position. I imagine in the conversation about impatience mentioned at the beginning of this post that the speaker had been personally inconvenienced by someone’s impatience – I do not defend rudeness caused by impatience. Impatience is no excuse for failing to respect another human being’s personal space, property or rights but I don’t consider it to be the terrible thing that some people seem to.

While I’ll agree that patience is a practical necessity in society, is it truly a virtue? Perhaps impatience has just as much right to be considered a positive quality; civilisation has developed because of impatience as much as because of patience. The patient people work away a task as they have always done it but the impatient people look for a quicker way to get to the end result. Many of those impatient people may fail but the one who succeeds may find a better way for everyone in the society carry out the task and life becomes a little better in that society. The impatient boss who chivvies his slow work force gets them to bring more of their capabilities to the job in hand and may beat his patient competitor.

Waiting is often unavoidable and unpleasant but if you can channel your impatience into something constructive perhaps you might just change the world for the better and not have to wait next time.

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One thought on “On waiting and impatience

  1. Jon says:

    I need to keep this with me anytime I’m waiting for the bus, train, delivery, e-mail … This is all spot-on, and really quite profound.
    You should do Thought For The Day -seriously!
    Jon.

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