Patience is the Most Practical of the Virtues

Most of the moral virtues have a reputation for being impractical. Honesty may be the best policy, but it often makes for a great deal more work for the person telling the truth, at least in the short term. Courage is necessary to practice any other virtue, but courage also means having the courage to do things that will cause oneself a great deal of trouble. Diligence is almost the definition of impracticality; it is at least literally the opposite of laziness. And so it goes with most of the others. But patience stands apart from the others in being not only virtuous, but highly practical.

It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, but the truth is that one never does precisely the same thing twice. The first time always does something, so the second time takes place in a different world. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with people, who usually remember the past. And this is where patience shows how practical it can be.

Anyone with any experience of the world knows that talk is cheap and when it comes to actions, a great many people will try anything once. Accordingly, when people state an intention, or even when they try to do something, the most likely outcome is that this is the last you have heard of them. It does not take a great deal of experience with the world to become accustomed to delaying responses. It is true that if you leave the dishes in the sink, they will be harder to clean the next day. It is also true that if you leave them on the table, the dog will probably clean them off within a few minutes so that you can stick them straight into the dish washer without having to scrape them first. The reason that procrastination is so common in this world is because it is very effective. Many, if not most, problems simply go away if you ignore them long enough.

This is why there was the story of the importunate widow in the bible. (Importunate comes from the same root as importune.) There was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man, and a widow who never ceased to demand justice from him against her enemy. For a long time he ignored her, but eventually he said to himself, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, I must give this widow her rights or she will come slap me in the face.”

There is another practical aspect to patience, because patience must come from a source, and that source will carry a person through the execution of what they undertake. This is especially important in organizations with limited resources; to give someone what he asks is to commit resources which could be used elsewhere, even if just time. When people are willing to wait, it shows that their zeal has a reasonable chance of surviving the execution of their undertaking. Especially since all human undertakings in this fallen world will meet with adversity.

Patience is also involved in every attempt at learning. Whether it is practicing as skill or reading entire books to find out which are the good parts (if one isn’t reading Chesterton), learning will never be acquired without patience. This is perhaps especially evident at dance classes; a great many people quit because they don’t have the patience to look like a fool for a short time. It is true everywhere, though. Many people give up ice skating because they do not have the patience to fall a few hundred times. People give up learning to knit because they cannot stand to make a single misshapen scarf whose stitches are far too tight. Many a potential juggler has juggled nothing because they got tired of chasing after balls thrown wildly.

It has, for these reasons, always struck me as odd that patience is not a more commonly practiced virtue. It comes up almost any time one wants to accomplish anything, even vice. Pickpockets must wait until the right target comes along. How much more, then, will patience be required to practice virtue?

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