patience

On May 19, 2012, I delivered the following keynote address at the Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon.

One of the self-indulgent pleasures that comes with delivering a keynote address is the freedom to address nearly any topic. I have decided to take this occasion to remind myself what I could be more attentive to, in my own life. While I believe these confessions will help you in your own future as you graduate from Carnegie Mellon University and enter the Phi Beta Kappa Society — for I wish I had received similar advice when I entered the society 26 years ago — in this lecture format, we will not be conversing one-on-one. As a result, it’s possible that you will find these remarks trivially true, on the one hand; or unhelpfully obscure, on the other. In either case: I beg your patience.

What is “patience”? An old-fashioned word; a woman’s name, like Hope, Prudence, Charity, or Grace; a quality that denotes forbearance. But notice: Patience as a moderating influence runs counter to the cultural practices within our university.

When I describe our university to prospective students — you may remember, once upon a time, you were a prospective student, and before that, a college applicant, uncertain of your prospects, uncertain as you are today about what the coming years will bring, uncertain as anyone who is honest about our inability to predict the future — when I speak to prospective students, I describe Carnegie Mellon as a place with the following characteristics: (1) We work hard. Don’t come here unless you also intend to work hard. We tend to conflate work and pleasure; we look to be passionate about what we do. (2) We work together. We love collaborating on projects and, if you have a good idea, you can find others will rally with you to make it happen. (3) We like to make things. We make tangible results, visible to the world.

This combination of qualities permeate the entire university. Give students at any other college a long weekend away from classes in the spring and you won’t get the marvelous traditions of Carnival, highlighted by Booth and Buggy. With your free time, you work hard to make things, together. In this way, the students, staff, and faculty here are always ON; we have trouble finding an off switch. We are driven by deadlines (assigned and met), by urgency.

In extreme, this type of urgency is the opposite of patiency. Because you have been educated in the pragmatism of urgency, I am here to tell you not to neglect the virtue of patience.

Ahh — you all might say to me if we were in conversation — you are wrong. We understand patience. We have practiced it for years, in the form of deferred gratification. As you just pointed out, we worked long hours to get where we are. And I would agree, my fellow Phi Betes, you certainly possess one type of patience: the ability to deny yourself immediate rewards for the sake of greater future rewards. If you had taken the marshmallow test as a child, I suspect each of you would have received two marshmallows after fifteen minutes, rather than only one marshmallow immediately, a strong indication of self-discipline or metacognition. Furthermore, you have witnessed how the university conducts its own affairs: Bill Dietrich’s gift to the university is an endowment that in turn disburses funds towards the university endowment — a slow but steady compounding of compounded interest, which certainly Ben Franklin and perhaps also Albert Einstein identified as a powerful force.

But these examples of deferring gratification presuppose a greater reward at a later time. What happens if the anticipated reward does not appear? Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. And there are many other forms of patience. In my own life, I need to strengthen the habit. Yesterday I waited for a bus for nearly an hour and found myself grinding my teeth. Last night I yelled at one of my children for striking the other. Grinding teeth and raising voice did not accomplish anything. Patience is a difficult virtue for me to practice.

This spring I’ve been taking scuba lessons, which has proven to be an unexpectedly good venue for practicing patience. Most fundamentally, a scuba diver must always breathe. Never, ever stop breathing, especially while changing depth. Ascend and descend in a controlled fashion. Breathe slowly and deeply, resolve any underwater problems clearly and methodically. As long as you are breathing, we beginning divers are taught, everything is going to be fine. Do not be hasty in your thoughts and you will be able to resolve any difficulties. Do not be rushed in your movements, and you can stay underwater longer. In short: be patient.

This semester, the students in my Meaning Across the Millennia course and I worked on the Earth Tapestry project, to invite all of humanity to help us determine which locations on our planet we should preserve in multiple archives, including on the surface of the Moon, for millions of years. This project, which draws upon time capsules and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, is another example of patience, on the global level.

I encourage you to practice patience with others, especially when you are frustrated by people you love. I encourage you to practice patience when you find yourself in circumstances beyond your control, such as sitting in a black cap and gown when the sun shines brightly and the temperature soars above 80 degrees — don’t text, don’t surf the web, don’t complain, even to yourself. Keep Calm and Carry On. I encourage you to practice patience, which is a high form of tolerance, with others, listening to other points of view. American political discourse would become more civil if we could become more patient with our fellow citizens.

Most of all, I urge you to be patient with yourself.

Your life is not entirely in your control. It will continue to be filled with wonders and surprises, both joyful and tragic, and events that you will anticipate and dread. This is the adventure of life — we shouldn’t wish it any other way — we would be cursed if every plan we made turned out exactly as we hoped. Don’t dwell on your past successes and disappointments, but rather on the promise of the future. It’s OK (it’s more than OK) to fail. It’s OK (it’s more than OK) to be scared. Keep your expectations high, and pick yourself up again. Be patient with yourself. After all, you’re only human.

In ancient Greek thought, the soul and the breath were the same: psuche, from which we derive the words psyche and psychology. You cannot always be inspired – in fact, in order to be creative, you should admit a rhythm of intense focus, then relaxation. The process is like scuba: you cannot always be breathing in, always inspired.

I therefore encourage you to balance both urgency and patiency in your life. The message of urgency is: Live each day as though it were your last. Seize opportunities as they present themselves. The message of patiency is: Live each day as though it were your first. Life is long — although I wouldn’t recommend waiting a quarter century if you’re interested in becoming a scuba diver, because it’s a lot of fun.

In closing, as you commence the rest of your life this weekend, I encourage you to make patience a regular practice and — to be reflexive about it — be patient with yourself about becoming more patient.

Thank you for your forbearance this morning.

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