Monday, July 14, 2014

Dietrich von Hildebrand on Patience, pt. 1: Impatience

[315] Few virtues bear such unequivocal witness to the fact that one's life is based no longer on one's own nature but on Christ, who imparts to us His divine life in holy Baptism, as does true patience. From the mysterious words of Our Lord, "In your patience you shall possess your souls" (Luke 21:19), we may glean an initial knowledge of the greatness and significance of this virtue.

Indolence is not the same as Christian patience

Here, again, let us do away at once with a possible misconception. Christian patience has nothing in common with a phlegmatic temperament and the sluggish rhythm of life such a temperament produces. There exists a kind of people who never grow impatient and are always willing to wait—either because they need time for everything themselves and reveal a slow pace in all their vital manifestations, or else because nothing can rouse them from their indolence nor evoke on their part any but dull and spiritless reactions.

This natural disposition is not, as such, of any moral, let alone supernatural value; rather, specifically speaking, it must be considered a deficiency. In certain situations, it may of course prove to be [316] comfortable and helpful; but frequently it will act as a heavy impediment inasmuch as it renders all wakefulness, ardent zeal or bold determination difficult of attainment.

Such a disposition of pseudo-patience may be a symptom of deficient vitality; or again, it may flow from a certain form of self-contained animal vitality unresponsive to all stimuli of a higher order. [...]

Stoic indifference is not the same as Christian patience

Nor should Christian patience be confused, either, with that equipoise based on intellectual discipline and a kind of natural asceticism which we know to be a specific ideal of Stoic philosophy. The Stoic endeavors to acquire an artificial disinterestedness in regard to all things, thanks to which nothing can any longer perturb his composure. His aim in doing so is to safeguard his sovereignty amidst all situations; for he deems it inconsistent with his dignity to be agitated and buffeted about by the blows of fate. It is, we may well say, repugnant to his pride that he should admit his infirmity and his creaturely dependence on a higher power.

The reason why he exhibits no sign of impatience is that there is no longer anything that can move him deeply or touch him to the quick, no object to which he would abandon himself with his inmost being. His patience, then, is merely a manifestation of his indifference to all things except his own imperturbability—of his [317] apathy and ataraxy, as the Greek names go—which of necessity also implies a loss of the response to values. [...]

Of course, he who has no vital interest in anything can well afford to wait placidly; he is unlikely ever to lose his temper, ever to press onward tumultuously, ever to grow impatient.

Buddhist placidity is not the same as Christian patience

Another attitude that bears an outward resemblance to true patience but is essentially distinct from it is typified by the Buddhist mood of an even-tempered endurance in regard to all that comes to pass. [...]

What we are faced with here is not the psychological device for ego protection that the Stoa commends under the label of ataraxy: it is a fundamentally different attitude to the world of real things [....] To the Buddhist, all real things is mere appearance, devoid of true substantiality. His attitude, therefore, is that of detached contemplation of reality, dispensed from all obligations of action and accomplishment.

This position of a pure spectator, unfavorable to all activity and tension—in fact involving an aversion to all endeavors at realizing a purpose—precludes the very basis on which the virtue of true patience might unfold. [...]

[318] In other words, the Buddhist doctrine eliminates the problem of patience and impatience, and that in a much more formal sense even than does Stoicism. For, whereas the Stoic philosophy bears upon our attitude toward things merely insofar as they affect our state of mind, the Buddhist modifies our basic relation to the world of reality and calls in question our general obligation to do our part within its framework.

Patience is opposed to petulance and to inconstancy

Passing, now, to the description of true Christian patience, we must at once signalize two distinct dimensions in which it unfolds. We mean that patience is opposed to two moral defects: first, to impatience in the sense of petulancy or a quarrelsome and violent behavior; secondly, to fickleness and inconstancy: the tendency soon to desist from a purpose if its realization seems to require a long period of time.

Patience in the sense of an antithesis to this last-named defect is closely related to constancy; yet, it should be noted that constancy comprises other elements besides patience. [...] He who is wanting in constancy does not necessarily lack patience; but whoever possesses constancy also possesses patience in the latter sense. [...]

[319] Impatience is a form of self-indulgence

Insofar as the good we are pursuing belongs to the category of what is agreeable or objectively beneficial to us, it will be a question of that kind of patience in which the element of constancy is less stressed. Suppose we are longing for some legitimate good for ourselves: if its acquisition is rendered difficult by certain obstacles (unforeseen ones, in particular) or is delayed too long, we are apt to become impatient. For example, if we are hungry and have to wait for our meal, or again, if we have pains and the soothing drug is not directly at hand; similarly, if we fail to receive a letter at the time we have expected it, or if somebody we are to meet takes long to appear.

Here what our impatience refers to is always the element of time. It may be the period of time that must lapse before our strongly desired good can be obtained; it may be the oppressive emptiness of a spell of waiting as such; it may be, again, the long duration of some evil, however slight.

Thus, we are likely to develop impatience if we have to endure lasting pains, a tedious conversation that tends to prolong itself, or the importunate advances of bothersome persons. In short, three varieties of evils related to time may account for this kind of impatience: delay in the securing of a coveted good; any kind of lasting unpleasantness; and the boredom inherent in pure waiting as such, especially when the thing we have to wait for may not imply a great pleasure or be highly enjoyable.

Our impatience will mostly take the form of ill humor and anger directed against somebody who is really guilty of the delay that irks [320] us, or possible only a scapegoat whom we arbitrarily make responsible for our vexation. But the anger of impatience need not always tempt us into reproaching or grumbling at a person; it may find some other outlet. Thus, even in this case [...], impatience often prompts us to renounce an aim because we cannot secure it expeditiously.

This form of impatience can be subsumed under the head of letting ourselves go. In investigating the deeper roots of this inward disharmony and rebellion, we shall have to distinguish a threefold motivation which underlies it.

Impatience springing from overestimation of goods or evils

First—the interest we take in the given aim we are pursuing is apt to be an inordinate one. It dominates us too strongly and too exclusively, so much so that it may push aside our interest in what legitimately demands our primary and invariable attention. The impetuous dynamism of certain trivial and transitory or intermittent interests overlies in an inordinate fashion our awareness of God, of our fellow man, or of other high values.

Our impatience, then, is a sign that we are still too much absorbed in outward concerns and momentary aims; that they are too important to us and at a given period occupy our field of attention too extensively. It is a sign that we have not yet arrived at the right gradation of our interests, which should take into account the objective hierarchy of values. Such is the case, particularly, insofar as our impatience corresponds to our endeavor to secure something agreeable or a practical necessity of the moment.

If, on the other hand, it is a question of enduring some outward evil (be it bodily pain, illness, annoyance or just boredom), our impatience betrays on our part too strong a reference to what gratifies and what is contrary to our inclinations, a certain softness [321] and lack of distance in regard to our body or to the impact of disagreeable sensations as such. A kind of inner servitude, too, is implicit therein; a false reliance upon an imaginary normal situation exempt from evils, which we take to be self-evidently due to us to the point of making ourselves dependent upon it. Hence, whenever an evil, as is inevitable, befalls us, it cannot but arrest our attention wholly and turn it away from the higher values that approach and address us—from the love, for example, which other persons manifest for us, or above all, from God, who, we know, means to tell us something even by the evils which He permits to visit us.

In sum, the impatience we have in mind here expresses an automatism of self-indulgence, an attitude of uncontrolled allegiance to one's own nature. It signifies that one has not yet succeeded in establishing that distance between one's responsible self and one's unredeemed nature with the desires and impulses it harbors, which is a basic aim of all ascetical practice.

The Christian, however, must never abandon himself to the autonomous pull of his nature. Though he may pursue all kinds of licit objects with intensity, he must never install such a pursuit, as it were, in sovereign omnipotence. He must keep it always dependent on the sanction of his central personality and confront it with the rest of his valid interests—particularly, his tasks and duties. Yet, most people are prone to obey the impulse of their nature without submitting to it any control, on certain points at least: whenever, notably, the object pursued is not by itself illicit or fraught with sinful implications.

Impatience rooted in an illegitimate sovereignty of self

But there is a second root of the impatience we are now dealing with. A certain type of persons—who may be described as impatient par excellence—are apt to lose their temper not merely when [322] obliged to wait for the realization of an object they passionately desire, but whenever they face a delay in the attainment of an aim they have once set up, even if that aim is a neutral or unimportant one as far as its actual content goes. They allow themselves unreservedly to be swayed by the weight which the thing they have proposed as an aim acquires simply on the strength of having been so proposed. The very failure of this chosen aim to find immediate accomplishment strikes them, in their obstinacy and arrogance, as an insupportable affront.

This unlimited subserviency to their own nature also creates in them an egocentric attitude, for they ascribe to any pursuit they are engaged in an importance over and above everything else. They recklessly disregard other people's needs.

This second source of impatience, then, lies in one's attribution of an unrestrained formal sovereignty to one's nature. That is why typically impatient persons are likely to manifest such a self-indulgence and lack of discipline not merely when they have to endure a strong pain or the frustration of a violent desire, but whenever any purpose of theirs suffers a delay in its realization.

Our impatience is a mark that we have quit the status of habitare secum [dwelling with oneself], and are swimming with the current of a predominant impulse or the formal automatism of our nature. There is an analogy with a fit of anger in this type of self-importance, or even more closely, with an act of frivolous swearing and cursing. We then, giving free rein to impatience, stake, as it were, everything on one card and give away our whole person without the sanction of our central and responsible self.

In other words, and viewed from a different aspect, we sever the fundamental link with God that defines the constitution of our life as a creature. The second factor—the tendency to erect any purpose, once it has been set up, into a formal absolute—is more characteristic of impatience than is the first-named one, the inordinate stress attached to certain of our pursuits, for it bears a direct [323] relation to our scorn for time as a dimension of objective reality independent of our will.

Impatience rooted in a prideful denial of our creatureliness

Hence, we may proceed immediately to the third and most basic factor of impatience: the assumption of a false position of supremacy above the universe, the non-recognition of one's own creatureliness, limitation, and finiteness. Thus illegitimately arrogating to himself a status of sovereignty, the subject clings to the illusion of being a lord over time. He would extricate himself from all dependence on the causae secundae [secondary causality], on the order and interaction of created causes. The impatient man experiences any obstacle to the progress of his pursuits as an injurious interference. He revolts at the check planted on human volition by the interval of time that must lapse between conceiving and attaining a purpose, and would conjure up the intended effect by a mere fiat—the likeness of a divine command.

Herein lies the primary and deepest sinfulness of impatience. It contains an act of hybris [NB: aka "hubris"]: an illusory negation of our human situation and the substitution of a supra-human position of mastery. For the givenness of time, with the ineluctability of waiting it involves, represents a specific limitation of our creaturely existence on earth. We are faced with a course of happening, a sequence of events in time, which is not of our making and which we cannot alter except within certain rather closely set bounds. We may not subvert its essential structure.

We have to reckon with a space of time interpolating itself between our volitive decision and the fulfillment of our purpose, and accept it as a reality imposed by God.

The impatient man insists on ignoring this reality; he behaves as though it were in his power to make the trees grow more quickly and the earth revolve more quickly around the son. Impatience [324] renders us hard, unkind, masterful, and in some circumstances, violent. It always implies a loss of depth.

Impatience differs from our legitimate deep yearning for the realization of a noble good

It should on no account be confused, therefore, with a consuming desire or a feverish yearning as such; with the deep tension of the soul towards a noble good, which may cause us to live through the minutes of waiting as though they were hours. Our fiery inward motion towards a high aim ardently longed for—such as seeing again a dearly beloved person after a long separation, embarking on a beautiful journey which fills us with magic anticipations, or the inception of a gratifying work which our mind has been passionately engaged in planning—should be well distinguished from impatience proper.

To be sure, even such a fine aspiration must never dominate us to the degree of a complete possession. We must always place everything in the hands of God—"Not as I will but as Thou wilt." But this inward tension towards a high good is something valuable by itself; it lacks the distinctive marks of impatience proper—it does not generate anger, scowling indignation, masterful rebelliousness. It should—it can—be informed and transfigured by an attitude of serene humility which keeps us constantly aware of the truth that the fulfillment of any aim of man is a gift of God.

This kind of tension differs from impatience proper by the fact, also, that it presupposes a high good as its object, whereas the impatience we have in mind mostly refers to trivial goods. Moreover, the former's sphere of objects includes goods whose realization is entirely independent of ourselves, whereas the latter bears more generally on such goods as we can at least help to bring about.

What irritates an impatient person is, above all, the too sluggish effect of his orders, his actions, his attempts to influence men's [325] behavior or the development of a situation. His ill temper expresses a revolt against the relative and limited character of his effectiveness.

The foregoing analysis of impatience may help us now to describe the virtue of Christian patience, insofar as it refers to the securing of pleasurable goods or ego gratifications as such, to the endurance of pains or boredom, or again, to the attainment of legitimate natural goods of the higher kind.


Source: Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2001), 315–325.

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