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Comment on patience, inaction, and rationality

What follows is an excerpt from a private exchange. I comment on some of the themes I have covered in my publications on philosophy. The quoted/indented parts are from my correspondent. The identity of the person remains private and I have received permission to share this.


I don’t want to abuse your time but the truth is I’ve been waiting for an excuse to send you a letter.

An excuse to philosophise has to be among my favourite excuses. Haha!

I really like the ideas you exposed in the “on self-improvement” video, especially when you talked about “Not focusing only on rewards and trying to enjoy the process”. Since then I started working on being aware of my impatience and learning to be patient while doing anything that serves to reach a goal especially in small tasks. Lately I realized that being more patient about my assignments, problems to solve, and small coding actually ends up saving me time and brings me better results because I free my mind from the anxiety associated with the need of getting to the right solution fast. Consequently I am more engaged in not neglecting important parts of the process because I work focused on what I am doing. But I see in patience also the problem of overexteding deadlines, specially in less technical or obligated matters. I find it contradicts with Memento Mori, as you say we are finite and not omniscient, life is passing by and I see patience in favor of maintaining the status quo. Sometimes I feel that me and a lot of my friends are putting aside small dreams like our hobbies, things that we really like doing. We postpone them for that wishful future where we’ll have time. I guess sometimes we have to be impatient and push things?

I will answer this and the following questions. Can I publish your quotes and my comments on them? I will not disclose your personal details.

I think you already have the answer as you mention “to reach a goal”. This means that your actions are purposeful. While you can parse them in a stepwise way as a series of small tasks, you understand that they all contribute in concert to a greater end. Doing something with purpose is the same as walking on a long road through the mountains from village A to village B. You cannot teleport there and you can’t sprint for such a long distance either. You are aware that the journey will take several hours and you know that being impatient will make you feel tired, even if your body has stamina left. The way to withstand the pressure and overcome the challenges is to focus on the here-and-now: enjoy your surroundings and pay attention to whatever it is you are doing or thinking in the moment. Time flies by and you keep going, until you eventually reach your destination. This encapsulates the idea of patience.

You rightly mention the status quo. Is patience leading to conformism? I think the answer is affirmative only if the goal is to be a conformist, such as to persevere at an awful job because of the “social credibility” it offers you. It is not patience that preserves the status quo, but the willingness to uphold it either out of fear or some calculated benefit or, generally, some other motivation.

Patience simply is a method of acting and thinking. It is about our disposition, else the way we relate to phenomena. We combine a sense of the longer-term goal or bigger picture with the minutiae of our presence in the here-and-now. We cannot have presence on its own, as that will reduce our behaviour to a series of disjointed reactions. We cannot have just the bigger picture either, as that will hold us captive in a state of overthinking where we will continue to abstract, to map, and to fathom all aspects of the concepts under consideration. So we act with some sense of purpose—some imperfect or incomplete plan in mind—while also being focused on the immediate step ahead.

There are times where we make compromises and endure whatever hardship because we think it is to our longer-term benefit. Here too patience works the same way I outlined: it helps us get through the ordeal. Though it is important to identify what brings us to this state of affairs and to not misattribute it to patience per se.

More broadly, a revolutionary who wants to reform the established order from the roots to its branches knows that the impetus for change does not come on-demand and cannot be sustained on a whimsy. Sometimes the revolution has to wait and be readied on the margins until a more opportune moment arises. In this case, we have the ultimate objective of upsetting the status quo, but in the meantime we appear to be in conformity with it (e.g. an anarchist who uses fiat/state money to buy groceries even though they disagree with the state in principle).

Based on these, impatience and pushing through are useful when we do not have a reason to stick to the end goal. Again, we have finite resources and try to use them as best we can. For instance, you are about to catch the bus, but someone starts talking to you and is not considerate with your time: it would be a mistake to be patient with that person as you have something more important to do.

There are scenaria where patience is inapplicable. Consider the case of a bad relationship. You tried to make it work but for whatever reason you did not get what you wanted. The communication channels are broken and things can only deteriorate. You have to find the strength to quit.

Patience has to be couched in terms of reasonableness and of how our emotional state affects our everyday functioning. If the relationship is abusive, for example, we will go through traumatic experiences. We already know how harmful those are. We are not operating in a vacuum: there is a shared stock of knowledge that we have access to. If we get that feeling of dread, we should know that it is time to admit what the reality is and abort the project.

Patience then is not an excuse for insisting on an untenable situation. It also is not equivalent to stubbornness. It is a method that we employ when we want to achieve something. When that goal is no longer feasible, we have to shift our energy elsewhere, otherwise risk sustaining permanent injury.

How do you understand patience? How to find the right balance? Maybe I am mistaken patience for inactivity and the real meaning of patience is getting synchronized with reality to act at the right time, not after, nor before?

Since I already expounded on patience, I want to use these questions to pivot to a different topic. In our life, we try to have clarity: to understand our thoughts better, to know who are our friends and loved ones, to figure out what we like and dislike, et cetera. Even though we do not achieve perfect clarity, we still have an intuitive understanding of what “clarity” means. The fact that we do not realise the ideal of clarity does not prevent from trying to approximate it. In other words, we use the ideal as our guide, the lodestar that allows us to orientate ourselves in the wilderness. We can do this even without formalising it as “now I am pursuing my ideal of clarity”. No, we do not need to formulate it this way and be conscious of it. We can do the right thing without ever noticing it.

I thus think that part of the argument against overthinking is that we do not really know what the exact “right balance” is. We can only work towards it through a process of trial and error. We are fallible, our time is limited, and the issues obscure. Many possible outcomes can only be fully comprehended after they have transpired. In a sense, we set a destination and continuously try to correct our course based on the live feedback we receive, just like a ship circumnavigating the globe.

Inactivity is not a problem as such. Just as action for the sake of action is not always inherently helpful. We need to consider those in terms of what they contribute to. If they are purposeful, they are part of a greater whole that adds meaning to them.

I also got interested in the advice to stop thinking and act in times of hesitation, irrational doubt or fear. I usually get trapped in this overthinking and not acting. This happens in multiple facets of my life. Like a chronic addict seeking for the right idea, the right meaning, the right purpose and the right way. How do you find balance between questioning your thoughts and your behavior and finding and getting committed to an answer to guide your actions? Maybe getting committed to values and then finding principles that set rules to your behavior to translate those ideals into practical actions? What do you think about defining values and principles to guide your actions? Did you tried this? And if so, how?

I think there is no definitive answer here. Our best guess is to accept and to tolerate a degree of error in our judgements. Put simply yet succinctly, let us recognise our humanity. We do not have the luxury to spend an eternity contemplating the propriety of every idea, the precision of every concept, the scope of every notion. Our actuality is one of action. We always act on the basis of imperfect information and we always have to make decisions that preclude certain possible outcomes.

Values and principles are helpful, though we must be careful not to assign disproportionate trust to our mind’s capacity to fathom those themes. There is always a chance that we are wrong, so while it is fine to proceed from a position of principle, we must do it with the understanding that we might be erring. Don’t turn your principles into a dogma that must never be questioned.

I am of the view that relying exclusively on our reason is a mistake. We reduce our multifaceted nature to a rationalist one. Yet we know we are not purely rational. Trusting our senses and emotions can be helpful as well. We want to have a balance here as well. There are cases where the “gut feeling” or some dream state may be telling us something that our reason cannot assess properly without further information. For a trivial example, consider how our body can tell us about an intolerance to a certain type of food. The given organ has knowledge that we have yet to render clear in our conscience. Or, again, with the case of the toxic relationship where we feel bad without having a proper explanation for every part of it.

Reason is a reliable faculty, though it also is the source of our overthinking. Therein lies the hint we need to accept ambiguity and uncertainty as part of our life. Sure, we have to do this as a form of decision which inevitably is reasonable. Though we are merely using our reason to establish a connection with whatever lies outside of it.

If something feels wrong, there is a good chance that it is indeed wrong for us. The “irrational doubt or fear” may be a coping mechanism that contributes to our wellness. So what if it is irrational? Think about all the processes in our body that keep us alive. Is a beating heart “rational”, for example? I think not.

I have learnt to take it easy. Instead of trying to figure out the best scheme for everything, I adopt the lifestyle of proceeding through trial and error. I have ideas that guide my action, though I cannot tell with certainty that they are absolutely correct because my ultimate criterion is the very being that may be fallible: me.

The absolutes are not our domain. We have approximations of them in a world that unfolds in action. By accepting that the perfect does not exist for us, we have a certain lightness to our being. We are free from that restraining, all-or-nothing attitude of the right idea, the right meaning, the right purpose, etc.

Maybe I am wrong but the music is playing and I am on the dance floor with no way out. So I might as well dance and have a good time.

Sorry for this wall of text. I am not a good writer and English is not my mother tongue. I understand you are pretty busy right now and this questions may have no answer. So feel free to ignore them.

No need to apologise: you did nothing wrong. Please let me know if I can publish this. Again, I will not disclose your details.