The Hardest Virtue
He sighs. "You have to be patient."
"I don't know how," I mumble. "Patience is for people who are slower than me."
It's easy for him to recommend patience. He's genetically engineered to move at tortoise-speed. After all, he's from the humid, sweltering Louisiana delta, where people don't trust you if you talk too quickly, and if you walk too fast, you'll inevitably collapse in a puddle of your own sweat. I come from furious, frenetic D.C., where highway slow lanes have a minimum speed limit of 88 mph.
I am not a patient person. I fidget through life at full acceleration, crossing off shorthand to-do lists and muttering in amputated sentence fragments. I wish I'd done my chores yesterday, even before I knew I needed to do them. In the Wonka Factory of Life, I am a Veruca Salt (though, perhaps, less materialistic and with better fashion sense). And if I'd been in that goose-room with the Oompas, I would have demanded not the Golden Egg but the Golden Zygote, because, dammit, incubation takes too long.
I do my best to control my impatience. I mask it as enthusiasm, deny its existence, and strenuously breathe in, breathe out, count-to-twenty-backwards. That just delays the inevitable. Just as fighting a sneeze is both painful and futile, so it is with my need for speed.
Strange, then, considering the videogames I prefer: RPGs, adventure games, puzzle games, platformers. In one way or another, each genre demands patience of the player, be it to tolerantly listen to long expository dialogue, to calmly slog through endless pointing-and-clicking, to meticulously attend to minute details, or to sternly and determinedly die, over and over, in that futile bid for the one remaining treasure chest. Maybe I use up all my patience while playing games, so that I have none left for real life.
But then I recall when he and I first started dating: back then, in between homework and parties and class, we'd marathoned Final Fantasy VI together. I didn't mind power-leveling, but I hated searching for enemies with rare treasures to steal, and none did I despise more than Brontosauri, those rare and bitchy bastards holed up in the Question Mark Forest, hoarding their juicy Economizers. I kept getting T-Rexes--frustratingly useless carnivores--and those battles lasted forever. So he hunted Brontosauri for me.
No, I know that for me, patience has little to do with gaming. I approach videogames as mindless meditation, a way to unburden myself of the stresses, emotions, and extraneous thoughts that accumulate in everyday life. However, without thought, you cannot have a sense of time, and thus the concept of 'patience' loses any definition. So I don't feel tense as I spend hours roaming the Veldt, mechanically swaying to the rhythmic drums like a human metronome.
It's easy to be mindless. Not so easy to be patient. But life is not a videogame, and he pulls me back from my thoughts:
"So, why don't you just get started, then?" he asks gently. "Just pick a direction and start running. What are you worried about?"
"I'm worried that if I pick the wrong direction, there won't be anything at the end for me to get to." I pause, searching for the right words. "That everything will have been a waste of time."
I hear myself say those words, and even before he speaks, I feel his response resonating in my mind. I know this, because I've said it myself so many times before: "Wasting time is rarely a waste of time."
Here it is. Now I understand.
My impatience is not a matter of velocity or the concern that if I move too slowly, I'll miss something good. It's rooted in the terror that what I do--whatever I do--has no meaning. I worry that any effort I expend is transitory and useless. Thus, internally I have rationalized that a task without a clear and obvious purpose in mind is dangerous; that I shouldn't expend too much effort on one pursuit, lest it turn out to be a waste of time.
In Squaresoft terms: spend too much time hunting the Brontosauri in life, and you'll miss your chance to go to the Opera House. If you can even get to the Opera House. And, of course, this goes deeper than simply stalking a bunch of pixilated dinosaurs.
How do you know that what you do has any importance? Is your purpose a revelation, a quiet disclosure, or an equation you derive in your head? Or do you simply skip like a stone through life, touching the water occasionally and briefly, only realizing what has happened after you've already moved on?
I wake up the next morning, feeling rested but not rejuvenated. Like always, I sit down at the laptop, check my email, write my column for Friday, sip my coffee, and gnaw on the stark fear of meaninglessness, which runs deeper than I ever knew.
For a few minutes, I stare at my coffee, watching it slowly swirl, curling itself around some imperceptible current. Then I go play FFVI.