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Patience, Patience
Our technology-driven world demands that we do everything faster. But when we live slowly, we're rewarded with a deeper understanding of the real world—and our connection to it.

“Pick an animal. Any animal.”

The words came not from a magician, but from a professor: Linda Hogan, the Native American writer who was my teacher in a University of Colorado creative-writing class back in the early 1990s. I picked a common-enough animal—a great blue heron—and, following Linda’s assignment, spent two weeks watching it, sketching it, taking notes on its movements.

And, well, how do I put this? It changed everything. The assignment had seemed dully straightforward. The experience turned out to be anything but. It turned out to be thrilling.

At first, clomping out to the creek every day with my sketchpad in hand, I tended to scare the bird off—and so I saw it mostly in flight. But even that was something. With its wingbeats deep and slow, its long neck pulled back into its chest, the heron was graceful, ghostly, and ungainly all at once: a gray vision—except for its chest, which seemed to absorb the blue of the creek below it.

During those two weeks, my schedule was simple: I sat still. In our contemporary fast-twitch culture, there may not be a less-fashionable virtue than patience. But here’s the funny thing about patience: It’s practical. It works. It gets things done.

In my case, being patient meant seeing the heron better. It was uncomfortable at first, but gradually I managed to keep still—and, as a result, the bird did, too. Or maybe I should say that it kept somewhat still, since I soon learned that it was a bird of a thousand postures. As it stood next to the creek, its neck would periscope up on alert and then quickly retract enough to completely change the metaphor: now its neck and head looked like a curled-back hand puppet. I noticed that the bird’s primary feathers were bluer than the rest, its secondaries more grey, and that together they combined to create a color uniquely “heron.” A ring of black circled its shining yellow eyes, but between eye and mask was a smaller circle of color: a whitish yellow that ran like a dripping watercolor down into the bill.

It wasn’t until I’d watched the heron for days that I caught it in what seemed like a moment of true quiet. At first it appeared completely motionless, until I noticed its bill opening and closing very slowly, as if the bird was whispering to itself. The wind ruffled its feathers slightly, but—save for the delicate opening and closing of its bill and some minute shifts in its posture—the creature didn’t move.

Here’s the funny thing about patience: It’s practical. It works. It gets things done.

Before I spent those two weeks observing the heron, I had already spent years working hard at becoming a writer. That work had necessarily included many hours of reading, researching, writing, and planning. But solitary hours of waiting and watching—at least to this extent—were new to me. I thought back to my experience recently when I read an article, “The Power of Patience,” by Jennifer L. Roberts, a professor of art history and architectural history at Harvard. In her classes, Roberts asks each of her students to write “an intensive research paper based on a single work of art of their own choosing.” The first step in working on the paper is that the students are required to visit a museum, and then spend three hours just sitting and looking at whatever artwork they’ve selected.

Three hours! Take it from this college professor: In today’s academic climate, we feel lucky to get a student’s attention for three minutes. After that point, many of them begin squirming, looking around, and reflexively checking their phones. But some of Roberts’ students apparently do stick it out. And those who do, she reports, are “astonished by the potential this process unlocked” once they’ve emerged from the other side of their boredom and started to see more in the painting that hangs in front of them. “Every external pressure,” she writes, “social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

Read more from the series: Answers from the Past

I believe that one of the reasons patience is generally regarded as dowdy or unsexy is that it’s seen as a “natural” virtue. We imagine it flowing organically from a wise old woman, or a Shaolin monk, or a primitive hunter stalking his meal. But in fact patience is almost always a learned virtue; and for most of us—initially, at least—it’s an awkward fit. We don’t learn how to wait patiently for the hell of it: we learn because we can gain something from it. We keep still, as uncomfortable as we may feel doing so, because it can help us better understand an artwork, or a heron. The primitive hunter didn’t sit without moving and wait silently because he was after some mystical form of oneness. He was after meat—and staying perfectly still was the way to get that meat.

“So what?” you might be asking at this point, expressing impatience with this lecture on patience. “What does sitting still for hours and looking at a painting—or a heron—have to do with life in these fast-twitch times of ours? Or with environmentalism, for that matter?”

Everything, I would contend.

As the writer Wendell Berry pointed out long ago, the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. It isn’t simply that too many of us are gulping down the gasoline and other goodies that corporations are forever dishing out; it’s also the way that we’re doing it. When we race to a thing, consume it, and then race off to the next thing, there’s no sense of our ever having gotten to know that thing—whether it’s a place, a person, an animal, or a resource. A culture of speed can quickly become a culture of glibness. There’s a reason that environmentalists who fight for the land and against the coring-out of the earth so often frame the battle as one waged on behalf of our children and grandchildren. It’s because—cliché though it may sound—that is exactly who we are fighting for. Patience begins when we acknowledge the value in taking this long-term view of things, when we justify the continued fight by citing something beyond our own immediate needs, or someone beyond ourselves.

To state it another way, it’s about breaking free from the tyranny of now. One of the great challenges in trying to get people—including politicians—to recognize the reality of climate change is that there always seem to be a thousand other problems that demand our immediate attention at any given moment. We’ll react to emergency: a hurricane, a twister, a fire. But even then, will our reaction really entail slowing down enough to reflect on what we ought to be doing, and how we ought to be acting, in the long term—when we’re not directly experiencing a crisis?

Sometimes long-term thinking and the patience it requires don’t even seem compatible with being human. In his 2011 book about the desert southwest, A Great Aridness, the writer William DeBuys puts it well:

Whether you are breaking prairie sod in the nineteenth century or raising a family and scrambling to make ends meet in the twenty-first, it is hard to get worked up over abstract possibilities. There is too much that needs doing, right here, right now. Even knowing the odds, people still live in earthquake zones, hurricane alleys, and the unprotected floodplains of mighty rivers. … Generally speaking, it is hard for any of us to get seriously concerned about what might happen until it does happen. That’s why the politics of climate change are so difficult. The measurements and observation that convince scientists about the warming of the Earth are invisible to the rest of us.

And there’s the challenge: How do we experience our own lives while leaving room for imagining and addressing the problems facing the larger world, beyond our experience?

When we race to a thing, consume it, and then race off to the next thing, there’s no sense of our ever having gotten to know that thing.

That challenge is compounded when one attaches oneself to an environmental cause—when your own sod-breaking centers on getting others to look up from breaking sod. One thing we environmental writers tend to do is to make our points using the language of crisis, freely employing words like “doom” and phrases like “the end of …” or “the death of …”. This is a perfectly legitimate rhetorical practice in a time of species die-off and climate change. Still, it might be worth investigating the effectiveness of speaking more slowly on occasion: of framing our arguments in an older language that emphasizes patience and long-term thinking instead of in our culture’s prevailing language, which emphasizes immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—what Harvard’s Jennifer Roberts has identified as our culture’s most exigent pressures. To paraphrase one of her insights into what she calls “the formative powers of delay,” when we change the pace of an exchange, we change the form and content of that exchange as well.

The obstacles to patience in our busy world are many and obvious. We’re forever worrying about what we might be missing: e-mails, texts, phone calls, opportunities. To many people in this day and age, Roberts admits, patience “sounds nostalgic and gratuitously traditional.” Nevertheless, she insists, it needs to be “a primary skill we teach students.” (And, it goes without saying, ourselves.) What she has termed “strategic patience”— the conscious deceleration of activity—represents “a form of control over the tempo of modern life that otherwise controls us.”

To be truly patient is to choose one thing for a while. And that means not choosing other things. It definitely means not choosing everything. In my own life, I’ve learned that there are some goals that cannot be achieved without putting other things aside. The writing of books, for instance. The same could be said of almost any other large and worthy ambition—like, say, saving the planet. As an essential tool for that long-term goal, patience is more than just practical. It has the power to save us from ourselves.

This column is part of OnEarth's Answers from the Past month, in which our contributors explore how contemporary thinking on sustainability has been influenced by wisdom handed down to us from previous generations. Read more contributions here.

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image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at Harvard, and founded the literary journal Ecotone. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. MORE STORIES ➔