Ruth and I flew to Virginia last weekend to visit our son. As our plane taxied out to the runway for departure from St. Louis, the pilot announced that we could not take off until all passengers complied with the federal face covering mandate for air travel. A man seated several rows in front of us, apparently impatient with this requirement, was refusing to wear a mask. Another man, apparently impatient with the first man’s behavior, loudly berated him as “an idiot.” The first man eventually acquiesced, the second man said no more, the situation resolved, and we made our connection in Atlanta—but I have been contemplating the virtues of patience ever since.
In previous letters to you, I have mentioned my affection for Google’s Ngram Viewer tool–here, for example, and here–which graphs the relative frequency of the use of a word or phrase over time as recorded in the more than 25 million texts that the Google Books project has scanned since 2002. The Viewer reveals, for example, that the phrases “instant gratification” and “instant feedback” essentially did not exist until a few decades ago. Nor, for that matter, did “instant coffee,” which has been with us just a little longer than “fast food.” ☕️ 🍔 The Viewer also shows that our use of the verbs “hurry” and “rush” has risen dramatically since the turn of the century after declining steadily over the prior 150 years. (The incidence of “quick” and “quickly” has followed a similar pattern.)
“Busy” is on the rebound, but our return to that word has been disproportionately in the first-person singular voice (“I am busy”) as compared to the second- or third-person singular voice (“You are busy,” “He is busy,” “She is busy”). In tandem, we have become preoccupied with waiting, but again more so from a first-person point of view. First-person pronouns in general, long subordinated to their third-person counterparts, are ascendant–indeed, they are now predominant–in English language usage. George Harrison’s I, Me, Mine, the last song recorded by The Beatles, was prophetic.
A preoccupation with activity and a fixation on the self combine to challenge our capacity to exercise patience. Two weeks ago, I wrote about vehicle congestion on and around the MICDS campus in the mornings and afternoons, and I have since received follow-up emails reporting incidents of driver impatience at these busy times of day: speeding, disregard of traffic signs and signals, indifference to pedestrians, and, as you might imagine, honking and hand gestures to match–the roadway versions, in other words, of refusing to wear a mask on a plane and of yelling at someone for same. We can and must do better, especially with so many younger drivers in our midst.
Impatience requires a disregard of the gifts of the present moment. I am reminded of the self-serving words of Don Draper in an episode of Mad Men. “What is happiness?” he asks. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” This misrepresentation of happiness as a thing to be sought rather than experienced is the enemy of our patience. When that son of ours who now attends college in Virginia was only a toddler, a parent with older children said to me, “You spend the first 18 months waiting for them to walk and talk, and you spend the next 18 years waiting for them to stop and listen.” Over the last century and a half, our use of the phrase “in the present” has diminished while our use of both “in the past” and “in the future” has increased steadily. Why are we so challenged now to live in the moment?
Patience requires the relinquishment of control. There is a dream sequence in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote in which an ancient knight named Durandarte, whom the magician Merlin has put under a spell, expresses hope of rescue by the novel’s namesake. “But if that may not be,” he concludes, “then I say, ‘Patience and shuffle the cards.’” Durandarte knows that he does not control his situation–that his rescue may not be “in the cards.” Tom Petty knows this too. “The waiting is the hardest part / Every day you see one more card.” When we are not in control–and we are never really in control–our patience will see us through, if we will let it. “He that can have patience,” wrote Benjamin Franklin as Poor Richard in 1736, “can have what he will.” We should listen to him more often, and Cervantes, and Tom Petty. I am confident these three luminaries are often quoted in the same paragraph, but you might check Google’s Ngram Viewer just to be sure.*
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a very happy autumn weekend with your loved ones.
Head of School
*A single PDF document with all Google Ngram Viewer graphs linked above is available here.
This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Lay Your Body Down by The Fratellis. “Take the long road when in doubt. / Take the long road, and you’ll find your way out.” (Apple Music / Spotify)