Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

This Is Your Brain


(Photo: HLPhoto/Shutterstock)

Patience in the Age of Distraction

• March 31, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: HLPhoto/Shutterstock)

The meaning of patience has changed over time, but that hasn’t made it any easier to practice.

There is a bar of marzipan across the table from me, and I have told myself that I will not eat it until I have finished writing. Almost immediately, I entertained the possibility that I might write more quickly if I ate the honey almond treat first. But here I go, writing about patience, partly by forcing myself to practice it.

Much of our talk of patience today disguises itself with words like “attention,” “mindfulness,” and “time management.” Patience is required to pay attention to the article before us, to be mindful of the person in front of us, and to manage our time in such a way that we accomplish all the tasks required of us. Right now, I am thinking of the marzipan and how, instead of eating it, I want to write to the friend who first introduced me to the sweet delight. But I am writing of patience, and I will wait both to eat the marzipan and to write to my friend until I have finished.

Patience has come to mean tolerating delay, but historically it had to do with tolerating suffering. Having the patience to endure meant accepting affliction or pain without complaint.

The attention economy was scandalized recently by the research of Tony Haile, CEO of a company called Chartbeat. Studying “deep user behavior across 2 billion visits across the web over the course of a month,” Haile wrote that Chartbeat found “a stunning 55% spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page.” Chartbeat is interested in accurately measuring traffic, namely finding a better metric than pageviews since viewing a page seems to mean so little.

Our impatience is not discriminating; it does not limit itself to the Internet. We spend only a few seconds less on Web pages than we do some of the greatest works of art. A 2001 study in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts found that visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent on average only 17 seconds looking at masterpieces. That word reminds me of the bar of marzipan, a culinary masterpiece, because I remember a visit I made to Toledo, Spain, where baker’s window after baker’s window displayed perfect fruits and vegetables, cathedrals and creatures all shaped from marzipan.

BUT BACK TO PATIENCE, which seems to have everything to do with attention and nothing to do with distraction or procrastination. Patience has come to mean tolerating delay, but historically it had to do with tolerating suffering. Having the patience to endure meant accepting affliction or pain without complaint. Now I have complained a lot about the marzipan, which I suppose negates whatever claims I might make to the mantle of patience.

Patience today doesn’t necessarily require stoicism. It does require accepting delay, deferring reward and satisfaction. That is one of the reasons that economists are so interested in patience, since it seems to be what most of us economic agents lack. Every time I read a study about compound interest, I think, “Yes, this is what I must do: Put aside more money now so that decades from now there will be even more of it.” Yet, like the bar of marzipan on my desk, the money that I should save is tempting and my patience limited, so often what should be tucked away for tomorrow is spent today.

If only we were more patient, the economists suppose, then we could act rationally: Deferring today’s consumption for some future tomorrow, like the marzipan I have wanted to eat this whole time, but will delay until I am finished writing. The kind of patience and endurance required for savings isn’t easy, or even feasible for many households. The inequality of our nation’s wages recapitulates itself in our nation’s savings: The Bureau of Economic Analysis at the United States Department of Commerce chronicles the rise and fall of the personal saving rate (the ratio of personal saving to disposable personal income) from its peak in June of 1971 and December of 1973 at 14.4 percent to its current slump of 4.3 percent in January of 2014.

THERE IS THE MARZIPAN, still on the table, more likely to be eaten now than in any previous decade. There are many kinds of patience, and I do not mean to trivialize any of them with the marzipan. For me, the candy across the table is useful exercise, and it helps me understand why the other kinds of patience are so difficult. The impatience I have when waiting for the bus or the subway is the same kind: I wish for both to come sooner, for my desires to be fulfilled more quickly. The impatience I have when awaiting the outcome of some legislative debate or judicial hearing or crisis or conflict is the same kind: I wish for certainty and knowledge sooner than life can offer them.

The tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 dramatized this on big television networks and tiny Twitter streams: We all were impatient for resolution, unable to wrestle with such uncertainty. When we rage at cable news shows for speculating, we realize their speculations are responding to our desires. Thinking back to Chartbeat, that is one of the reasons we spend so little time on any single piece of news or information: We assume more will follow, what we are reading now is only a sample, not definitive, only speculative. Better to half-read 10 things now than wait a few hours or a few days for a single thing that can sort through those impatient speculations.

But can the same patience that teaches us to stare at a bar of marzipan and not eat it serve us in these grander, more consequential periods of unknowing? I hope so. I hope that the habits of the everyday, when we are patient with ourselves and with our friends, can serve us when extraordinary doubt or suffering presents itself. That is, of course, what is meant by the old saying that patience is a virtue. Patience is something we can cultivate in ourselves, a pattern of living that can be practiced in small trials, like the marzipan, to prepare us for the greater trials, whatever they may be.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.