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.

Comments

Reminds me of a terrible quote. "Paitience is a virtue. Some men have it, and no women do."

...and there's one of the biggest problems with Western culture; if it doesn't have a Purpose, you might be Wasting Time, a sin which surely belongs in the top 10, if not the big 7. People seem to have forgotten that a life well-lived doesn't have to be one spent constantly trying to get richer, always on the go, never letting up. "Go big or go home," they tell me. "If you're not going to give 110%, don't bother coming out," they tell me. I need a bigger house, a faster car, nicer clothes. My kids need to go to the top universities, my wife should be wearing diamonds, I have to have a raise. My every waking moment should be Focused, my every action should have a Reason. These are the things that I am measured by, and God help me if I am found wanting.

I'm not interested. I don't want to be part of that, to take part in that. My time is my own, to do with as I please. If I want to spend an hour watching my grass grow, why is that wrong? When I choose to go home and play video games instead of working overtime, who's to say that my time is 'wasted'? Effort expended on transitory rewards is not useless; as they say, it's often the journey and not the destination that's important. Smelling the roses on that journey doesn't mean that you're doing it wrong; it means that the journey itself has merit, that it is its own reward.

Sometimes I'll drive back roads, smaller highways, lesser known routes when I'm going places. Yes, it normally does take longer, but I see things I wouldn't otherwise see, find places that would have remained unknown to me. As the journey takes on its own value, the relative value of the destination decreases; I no longer need to rush breathlessly through the paths that I take to reach whatever it is I'm reaching for, desperate for the reward that awaits. The endpoint is no longer the be-all and end-all, and I am more content because of it.

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence." Good words to live by.

Not to steal your thunder Katerin as it is a fine article, but I have to agree with Chumpys fine words. But then again I am always accused of having insane amounts of patience so I don't get all the rush. My wife is very much the opposite and sounds eerily close to how you describe yourself though. And she's Jewish ... hmmmm ...

Just to clarify: I could care less about collecting things, about making lots of money (I mean, I'm a professional writer, for godsake), and about keeping up with the Joneses. That's not what this piece is about.

Your words move me, Kat. I fully enjoyed your article from beginning to end; that time was not wasted.

Maybe, subcounciously, your body craves the catharsis that comes from the patience that is required for the games that you are drawn to.

Your brain may be crying out for the slower pace of RPG's and platformers, not the blistering pace of Project Gotham Racing and their ilk.

When I am driving and in no particular rush to be anywhere and I scream at the person in front of me for driving too slow or waiting two seconds after the light is green to go, I remember how thin my patience truly is.

No offense intended by me ... I didn't see you falling into the "problem with Western Culture" myself, I just thought Chumpys words were a nice follow up on the waste of time that you mentioned. Consider it a segue ...

I love this, as you know Lara. What I get out of this is the battle between activity for activity's sake vs. a conscious decision to stop. Just stop.

I invite you to come to Zombie Skate one Wednesday night and pick up a sniper rifle in Zanzibar. For me in gaming there are not many more moments that are that tense and the rifle is useless without patience. Knowing that you only have 3 seconds to make a shot but forcing yourself to use all three to be sure of your placement. I don't really drink anymore. It can't compare to the rush.

Zombie Night is not time wasted. It is the highlight of my week. As is watching American Idol with my fiance' and playing soccer with my dog. Whatever feels right at the time Kat. Don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.

KaterinLHC wrote:

Just to clarify: I could care less about collecting things, about making lots of money (I mean, I'm a professional writer, for godsake), and about keeping up with the Joneses. That's not what this piece is about.

Isn't it? Isn't it really? *insert psychiatrist leer*

It's a need for purpose. The collection of Things for their own sake is one of the prime societal purposes, but even if one rejects a specific endgoal, one is constantly bombarded by the need for Purpose. I drive because I need to get somewhere. I work so I can get paid/promoted/adored. I cultivate my roses to win the neighbourhood "Best Garden" award. Everything that we do should be for something, otherwise we're wasting our time, and don't we feel guilty for that? Our culture is based on the idea of constant improvement, constant striving, constant Purpose, and that imprints itself on us very early. Sloth is one of the 7 deadlies, and what is sloth if not Purposelessness?

One worries about doing things without a clear purpose because that's what we've been taught to avoid; that's what is to be avoided at all costs. Once we're out of the nest, we assume ourselves to be free, but what changes is the source of the drive to perform, to Do, to Suck The Marrow Out Of Life. When we are children, our parents instill in us the need for Purpose; when we are on our own, we are expected to do it ourselves. Maybe that's what growing up has come to - the time in our lives when we start demanding of ourselves all the things that our parents demanded of us when we were young.

The cup of coffee is a means unto itself; FFVI no less so. Although the brontosauri offer rewards, the hunt can be equally satisfying if we let it.

Kat, your words are spoken right out of my life. I feel the same, every day this gnawing feeling that my daily activities have no cohesion, no purpose, no direction.

In response to Chumpy, that in itself does not bother me. I don't feel the need to have a specific purpose to be happy. It's not so much the American idea that you need to have something to measure yourself against, so much as the idea that you have this potential which is unrealized. I don't feel so much a drive to acquire or complete, as much as I feel a need not to waste.

What I'm thinking might not be what Kat's thinking, but for me the wasted time is only wasted if at some point in the future I realize that what I really wanted to do was X. If I knew that down the road I will continue to have little or no specific purpose, I'd feel a lot better over wasting time, cause hey, it's there to be wasted anyway. But then I get into a debate with you, Chumpy, or Paleo, or Nomad (or any number of people in real life), and I regret the fact that I haven't read Hume, or Lovecraft, or Dostoyevski. Or learned martial arts. Or visted China. Not that I'd be doing that in the time I'm playing video games, but it makes me contemplate it at least.

And for the record, FFVI was never a waste of time.

No time is wasted if you have enjoyed yourself while "wasting it."

You really struck a chord there, Kat.

I am extremely impatient with myself, and almost always feel guilty when not doing anything "constructive". Knowing there isn't anything one can possibly do that is really and truly useful just makes it worse. Because deep down, I want to make a difference. I could blame society, and the Western way of thinking probably reinforces this kind of thinking, but I believe it's something I was born with. The conflict between wanting to be the Perfect Human and the knowledge it will never be, or that such a goal is actually futile and prepostrous will die with me.

Right now, I feel this is your best GWJ article ever. Trying to impress the newbies, are you?

burntham77 wrote:

No time is wasted if you have enjoyed yourself while "wasting it."

That is my view as well.

If I'm enjoying myself I simply don't care what value others may or may not find in my activities.

I'm happy damnit, and that's all that matters.

I'm glad the article resonated with so many people. I'm rather proud of this piece.

While I don't want to get in a debate about my work, since it should stand on its own without needing my help, I still wanted to respond to Chumpy because he makes good points:

Chumpy_McChump wrote:
KaterinLHC wrote:

Just to clarify: I could care less about collecting things, about making lots of money (I mean, I'm a professional writer, for godsake), and about keeping up with the Joneses. That's not what this piece is about.

Isn't it? Isn't it really? *insert psychiatrist leer*

No, it really isn't. I care very little for material things, I have little use for money not associated with buying me food or beer, and I think the Joneses are stupid for buying SUVs :).

Believing you need a purpose, a goal, something Important You Need To Do with your life, is a feeling independent of other people's perceptions of you. I believe that it is a universal feeling, one that society recognizes and your parents discuss, but also one that is innate.

Some people may never find their purpose, some people may give up or settle before they find it, but everyone has something that they feel they need to do with their lives. That purpose could be everything from raising a child to writing a book, to going on adventures to find that plant which will revive your dead friend made from clay, and none of these are more important than the other except in the eye of the beholder. Until you find that purpose, though, you feel like driftwood.

I wish it were so simple as to say "I found my purpose! Whee!" but it never seems that simple. There are many, many things that give my live reason and joy and a sense of rightness. But I've never ever felt "YES! This is IT!" But, I guess I fit the mold then, because I still feel like driftwood more often than not.

Although, I have to say, I really, really don't get this reference:

find that plant which will revive your dead friend made from clay

I'm sure I will now be informed what an ignoramous I am, but I totally didn't get this...

rabbit wrote:

Although, I have to say, I really, really don't get this reference:

find that plant which will revive your dead friend made from clay

I'm sure I will now be informed what an ignoramous I am, but I totally didn't get this...

It's a reference to the Epic of Gilgamesh; Enkidu, Gilgamesh's best friend, was created by the Gods by them throwing some clay on a plain. (However, I did misremember something: Gilgamesh seeks the plant of immortality to prevent his own death, not to bring back his dead friend. Woops. Been awhile. :))

Geee, here I slip a little Chaucer in and I feel all special... I'm gonna have to dig deep...

KaterinLHC wrote:
Chumpy_McChump wrote:
KaterinLHC wrote:

Just to clarify: I could care less about collecting things, about making lots of money (I mean, I'm a professional writer, for godsake), and about keeping up with the Joneses. That's not what this piece is about.

Isn't it? Isn't it really? *insert psychiatrist leer*

No, it really isn't. I care very little for material things, I have little use for money not associated with buying me food or beer, and I think the Joneses are stupid for buying SUVs :).

Sorry; I did realize that it wasn't a drive for material gains in particular. It just struck me that the piece felt about Drive and Purpose, and the accumulation of material goods - the 'points' that show that we're 'winning' - seems to be one of the most common drives in Western society. You're own drives may - and do, apparently - differ, but not the fundamental societal requirement of having a Purpose.

KaterinLHC wrote:

I'm glad the article resonated with so many people. I'm rather proud of this piece.

And well you should be; it's a great piece. Nice to see the old dogs letting it all hang out to keep up with the new pups.

rabbit wrote:

I love this, as you know Lara. What I get out of this is the battle between activity for activity's sake vs. a conscious decision to stop. Just stop.

Busted! Rabbit = DrunkenSleipner.

No, not really. If you read this, you know my conclusion is inaccurate. There's no wife and kids in the DS/Kat household. Now roommates... hmm...

Great article Kat. And great additions by chump.

Everyday, I find myself asking the same kind of question over and over. I know that there is more to life than just "getting somewhere" but sadly understanding doesn't translate well into action.
It is as if I see a trap in front of me, and know that it will kill me, but I still step on it over and over again...

If I can truly slow down, and not agonize over every little gains...

Good column, Kat. If I might suggest an alternative philosophy for you to pursue:

IMAGE(http://images.despair.com/products/demotivators/laziness.jpg)

It's gotten me this far, at least.

All the efforts you expend are transitory and useless. It's only by learning to live with this fact that one can find true peace (and, if you will, purpose.)

One must first sink to the bottom in order to start rising.

This article really hit me. Because I've been dealing with the same feeling for most of my life.

I've been lurking in these forums for probably 2 years now, and have ALMOST posted a couple times(apparently once about a year and 3 days ago - created an account), but by the time I'd thought it through, it didn't really seem that I'd be contributing.
But this... man. For decades, I'd tried to figure out what it was that made me feel so... static. Getting jobs that I don't like and moving on simply when I could simply not stand them anymore. Meeting and dating folks with the same criteria. Moving to a new location. Rarely severing any relationship with a bang(there were a couple... but they started it!)... but letting them each trickle away with a whimper. Just stop showing up.

I think I might be a little further along the downward spiral of this particular feeling, because I feel like I've recognized what it is about the quality of the things these that are supposed to drive me forward. Everytime I get to somewhere everyone says should be so great, it's a big steaming pile.

Here's the Corporate Speak for it: Percieved Value. There is almost nothing today, that has any real value, besides that which suckers attach to it. I realize that has probably always been true to some extent(Ie: why does gold have value? Because people percieve that it does.) The things that seem to have importance, to the great majority of people, these days seem to me to be just the ideas of things... theres no reality to them. I'm trying to come up with a legitimate example of this. Lotta folks these days lose their minds, if they can't access their email for a day... or their cell phone run's out of charge... or their kids school's play doesn't have a message that is diverse enough. Our problems aren't even real. Anti-bacterial everything - to breed a master race of folks who aren't immune to anything. Everything has to be padded so that there is no chance that anyone can be hurt - so that race isn't immune doesn't have any character. Everyone is expected to be nice and respectful and never offer any suggestions that might seem unkind, so that they aren't even immune to cusswords.

None of these things has any bearing in a world of meat and teeth. This world is soft and easy. It's so easy to reach out my hand and touch anyone I want anywhere in the world with the touch of a few buttons, or a few more keystrokes. But it used to be hard, and it seemed like people were closer then. That when it was an effort, contact was appreciated. We're so safe, statistically speaking, that our entire country is afraid of a threat, that until 9/11 was less likely to occur to someone than being killed by a lightning strike. We have to invent new terrors, because medical science has made so many of them a thing of the past.

I want to worry about real things. I want peoples friends and family to need each other again. These days... there's so many different support groups, and care groups and fundamental interconnectivity that noone 'really' needs anyone anymore. Someone else will take care of them. It's assured. For the most part. Sure, some will slip thru the cracks. But people were alot more concerned about their family's opinion about them, if they were concerned that one day they might need or want their help. They don't anymore.

So I say this... what should I want for? Riches: to buy stuff I don't need, and wont use... A great job? what is that job... and will I hate it once I get there? I really don't know too much about until I'm actually there. The time I spent getting there... yeah... it was wasted.

What do I want? I want meat and teeth. I want to hear Air raid sirens. I want to look at the guy or girl I work with and worry "Can I count on you, if it all comes down today?". I want my decisions to affect things that matter... will I eat tomorrow. Will my family eat tomorrow? They don't though. Not really. If I choose not to eat... the government probably has an agency that will make me. My family doesn't need me to eat. The government has a program fer that too. The safer we are, the easier it is to let each other go.

I look at most of the goals people have now and they are analogous to cake icing. The cake's already built. Sure icings tasty, but it's still already a cake without it. The hard work has already done. People assign arbitrary levels of importance to the things they are doing now... but it all seems so much smaller than what's already been done. Maybe I just need to come to grips with finding something that to me... is less "not important at all". It's hard for me to percieve that value, that everyone around me, seems to find so easily.

So I rush too, hoping maybe I'll stumble upon it. All the destinations are the same these days.
I rarely even check my email anymore.

The safer we are, the easier it is to let each other go.

Extremely true, also something I've thought about. Although there are still people out there that have tough lives, and there are extra special people out there who, despite all non-character building, are still good people who hold on. But when all real fear is gone, things just don't seem to mean as much.

I rarely even check my email anymore.

At least you check this site, it's good to have you here!