You’re on your way to meet a colleague, and you get stuck in traffic. The local traffic station tells you that you’re only looking at a two-block holdup. You can spend the next two blocks inching forward, which will add about ten minutes to your total drive, or you can turn around and take a much more circuitous — but fast-moving — route, which will add about fifteen minutes. Which do you you choose?
The logical answer is to spend ten minutes inching forward, but if you’re anything like me, you’d rather spend fifteen minutes actually driving than ten minutes poking along in traffic. And this, to me, is the ultimate proof of one of my greatest personal failings: an almost complete lack of patience.
Lucky for me, then, that Apple invented the iPhone. The iPhone is an impatient person’s best friend. Just two years ago, I found myself tapping my foot or tugging at my hair during any of life’s little waiting games: A bank line-up. A traffic jam. Those wasted minutes before the meeting actually starts.
Today, the iPhone rescues me from all these micro-crises. A traffic jam can be endured by plugging my phone into our car’s iPod dock, so that I can listen to a podcast. A bank line-up is the perfect time to check Twitter. The pre-meeting minutes give me once last crack at e-mail.
And most of the time, that seems like a good thing. Delays that would formerly have driven me into a frenzy pass very happily, because my iPhone has given me a quality that’s always been out of reach: patience.
Or has it? True, the iPhone makes it easy to pass the time in a way that’s either productive (e-mail, reading, Twittering) or entertaining (gaming, video-watching, Twittering). And if you’re looking at measurable outcomes — my willingness to wait for a delayed colleague, the courtesy with which I (finally!) greet the bank teller, the number of hairs left on my head by the time traffic finally starts moving — then Alex-with-iPhone looks a lot like Alex-with-patience.
But patience isn’t just about measurable outcomes. Patience is an internal state: the ability to be present with the thoughts, emotions and anxieties that arise in a vacant moment. In the quiet, flow or even discomfort that arises out of vacancy, we connect with the inner voice that gets drowned out by the constant background noise of phone calls, e-mail and TV. We suddenly see the solution to that engineering problem; an elusive tagline spontaneously swims into view; we daydream about telling the boss what we really think — and find a constructive way to do just that. We may even hear a voice that tells us that tells us we’ve gone off-track…or that reconnects us to our fundamental mission.
Some people seek out those quiet moments through exercise, meditation, church or other spiritual practices. But many others — especially those of us with the ever-present iPhone or Blackberry — do whatever we can to avoid them. Before our mobile phones turned into portable workstations and entertainment centers, the vacant moments invariably found us, even if we shied away from meditation, yoga or other “empty” moments. Now we can avoid the empty times almost entirely.
Far from fostering patience, my now-reflexive reach for the iPhone is all about avoiding and evading the emptiness that is patience’s incubator and home. On the rare occasion when my iPhone runs out of juice (of course, I’ve got a backup battery) or actually breaks (time to resort to my spare) I quickly rediscover my intolerance for waiting, for quiet, for nothingness. I’m forced to recognize that my iPhone isn’t 16 gigabytes’ worth of patience: it’s 16 GB of distraction. And what it’s distracting me from, most of all, is the price we pay for giving up the quest for (and experience of) patience in its true form.
Thanks to the iPhone, patience is further away than ever. The serendipitous gaps that used to be part of even the most hectic modern life can now be reduced to near zero. The emotional muscles stretched by those moments of emptiness — the ability to tune into oneself, to tolerate the anxieties that swim up, to even experience a moment of absolutely nothing — are quickly atrophied. We lose the inspirations and innovations that come from quiet, but we also escape the discomfort. The uncomfortable questions — am I doing meaningful work? am I living with integrity? am I happy? — can be silenced, along with the possibilities that might arise from searching for real answers.
But perhaps patience is a virtue whose time has passed. With screens to fill our every waking moment, our lack of patience won’t be betrayed by tapping feet or chewed nails. And if good things come to those who wait, nobody said you had to be bored while you were waiting.