Menus Subscribe Search

This Is Your Brain

marzipan

(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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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