Sunday, August 19, 2012


La paciencia todo lo alcanza, said the great 16th century Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila - perhaps one of the strongest arguments for patience that one is likely to hear. In theory, of course, I'm all for patience. I preach about God's patience toward us, and certainly imitating God's generous way of treating us is always a good norm to follow. And I find I have become sufficiently accepting of my own and others' limitations as to be ready to put up better those who may try my patience. I suspect it may be one of the calming benefits of aging, but I've certainly learned over the years to restrain the inevitable impulse to respond impatiently in challenging situations.Certainly being a calmer more patient person appears on balance to make the stresses of life more endurable.
That said, the impulse to impatience remains - never more so than when I am confronted with seemingly random, arbitrary, inexplicable waiting in situations in which I have little or no power to control (or even minimally to affect) the outcome. One of the most common places where I experience that is at an airport, when a plane is delayed, often for no apparent reason. The other obvious case is traffic. There is, of course, no significant traffic to speak of where I am living now, but I used to live in congested mid-town Manhattan. So I know something about traffic. I got a good reminder last month on my last trip home to New York. After the typical airport delays taking off and then docking at an arrival gate, I found myself stuck for over an hour in traffic just trying to get through the Lincoln Tunnel! (A good reason, I suppose, not to base a city on an island!) 
So I was really taken with an article in today's New York Times Sunday Review (Alex Stone, "Why Waiting Is Torture"), which looks at the psychology of waiting. The basic principle is that "occupied time" (time spent doing something) "feels shorter than unoccupied time." Stone's great example is how at a certain airport people used to complain a lot about long waits at baggage claim. What airport analysts discovered was that travelers were walking about a minute from the gate to the baggage claim - and then had to hang around (essentially doing nothing) for another seven minutes before getting their bags - a perfect recipe for impaitence. The creative solution was to relocate passengers' arrival so that they had to walk six times longer to get to the baggage claim. Complaints dropped accordingly. The same amount of time was involved, but people were doing something (albeit just getting from one location in the airport to another, in other words nothing convneient or productive). Hence the principle that "occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time." (A corollary principle might be that minimizing coflict takes precedence over actually trying to solve problems. No surprise there!)
Other factors also affect how we feel about waiting - uncertainly, for example, which is precisely what we are so likely to experience a lot of at airports or in traffic or waiting for a job to get done that we've contracted. "Uncertainly magnifies the stress of waiting, while feedback in the form of expected wait times and explanation for delays improves the tenor of the experience," Stone explains. That's certainly true, but I think only in part. Even when one knows the reason, waiting is an unpoductive reminder of one's personal powerlessness. No matter what the reason, that can be painful. 
There is also, Stone suggests, a fairness factor. When on line, for example, people expect the order of the line to be respected and resent it when it is not. (Hence, my frustration when in certain other countries where people do not seem to share this notion).
A particularly egregious variation on this theme, I believe, is all the special statuses which now determine the order of boarding an airplane. It used to be (with certain exceptions) that planes boarded from the rear. You knew when you got your seat number approximately when you would board. Presumably the reason for that system was to minimize bocking the aisles as people got settled and stowed their carry-on luggage. The old system was thus more efficient - and hence faster. Now, with all the various privileged statuses, not only has any semblance of a fair order dropped out of the boarding process, but the process has been made less efficient (and hence lengthier). If nothing else, it has become a good metaphor for our increasingly unequal and less fair society.
According to Stone, "Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one's life is slipping away."
Amen to that!

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