As I was driving along the highway the other day, I noticed (as I always do) the handful of drivers who are impatient to the point of road rage. These are the drivers who will tailgate you until you move over, then speed forward to tailgate the next car in line. “My time is more important than your life,” they seem to be saying.
It’s important to remember that these tailgaters are not the majority of drivers. They just seem to be the majority, because they managed to interact with so many of us.
Are these tailgaters the same folks who look for ways to insert themselves ahead of others who have been waiting patiently in long lines at ticket windows or in grocery lines? Maybe we all act this way sometimes. Anyway, what’s wrong with it? Isn’t it clever to get ahead of those suckers who aren’t smart enough to see the quicker road ahead? Why should patience be viewed as a virtue when all it seems to bring is a life of slow boredom and misery?
The simplest way to answer these questions is to consider the opposite case. What happens to society when everyone becomes a tailgater and a line-breaker?
I’ve often marveled at the fact that people in most small towns will sit patiently at stoplights even when there is no other car in sight for miles. They do this, I think, because they understand that in the long run we all get where we are going faster and more happily when we are willing to abide by certain social conventions. Once these conventions break down, the world becomes “every man for himself,” and the weakest among us get trampled.
Survival of the fittest may seem fair enough to those who are strongest among us, but aren’t we all helpless babies at some point in our lives? Aren’t we all, at some points in our lives, injured or sick? Aren’t we all destined to grow old, to walk more slowly, to become weaker, and ultimately die? The Spirited Reasoner believes that the hallmark of the greatest civilizations is their capacity to care for the weakest among us. “All men are created equal” is not just a slogan designed to help someone else. It is a self-evident truth; a recognition that while we might be strong at some times in our lives, we are also certain to be weak at other times, and there is a wonderful sense of confidence and peace in knowing that our fellow travelers on this planet will respect our weakness, just as we respect their strength.
But we mustn’t conclude that patience is a virtue only because of its social benefits. Patience would also a benefit to each of us as individuals, even if there were no social benefits at all. Those of us with patience do not feel the need to tailgate or break in line, because we are so content with the life we are living right here, right now. Even the tailgater, who has no interest in the here and now, should understand that patience leads to an inner sense of peace and confidence that ultimately paves the way toward the greater achievement of personal goals. The most rewarding goals require time to accomplish. Impatient people tend to quit too early, or to choose less fulfilling goals. They also tend to experience more accidents and injuries. Haste makes waste!
Maybe we should view patience as a forgotten, but very special virtue; one worthy of its own book.