Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Patience ranks high amongst the virtues that are commonly celebrated. It seems to represent the coming together of a host of other vaunted values: selflessness, calmness in the face of disquiet, self-control, and simply the ability to wait. The exhortation: “just be patient” has something of an odd quality to it, at once suggesting that there is nothing to do but wait whilst subtly suggesting that if we can just master our emotions that our patience will be rewarded. Yet the question that often gets buried in the demand “be patient!” is the matter of what exactly it is for which we are being patient? What is it for which we are waiting?
Lately it seems as though this patience is just a cover up for a form of waiting that extends far beyond the horizon – perhaps we are not patiently awaiting arrival at some destination, perhaps we are just waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.” Granted, it seems that we have so lost track of the sound of the first shoe hitting the ceiling above our heads that we can no longer be sure whether the sounds we are now hearing are genuinely “the other shoe” or just “another shoe.” Or, perhaps, the situation in which we find ourselves is one wherein our shoe-dropping antagonist is more akin to a mutant octopus than a human being – as this would certainly explain the dozens of shoes that seem to be shaken off of its tentacles. But as we are unsure of just how many shoes there are, we are prevented from knowing the point at which we can definitely state “the other shoe” has dropped.
A very partial list of some of the shoes that have fallen would include: continued evidence of deep rooted racism, a culture rife with misogyny, revelations about government surveillance, reports detailing ever widening economic inequality, a – rather heavily redacted – Torture Report, and lest we forget more and more evidence that the time to confront the threats posed by climate change may already be behind us. This tragically incomplete list tells of many shoes that have dropped, and in many of these cases the shoe in question is actually that of a jackboot stomping on humanity’s face. Ultimately it may prove less that we are waiting for the sound of the “other shoe” than that we are not certain of what we need to do once we hear the definitive thump of yet another shoe hitting the ceiling. After all, deciding to “be patient” or choosing to “wait and see” seem to encompass a levelheaded logic that can easily mask inertia.
When one feels stuck within an unceasing hailstorm of falling shoes it can be tempting to find security in a reactionary ideological shelter, one can drown out the sound by putting earplugs in, one can just turn up the volume on the television to drown out the storm, and one can be patient…even as the shoes continue falling. After all, beyond risking the opprobrium of those who equate the noise of the dropping shoes to that of dropped pins, impatience carries with it the risk of disappointment. As long as we remain patient we can cling to the belief that we are getting closer to where we want to go, and the fact that we have been waiting for so very long is easily turned into proof that we must be getting closer. As Günther Anders observed (in a comment about Beckett’s Waiting for Godot):
“exposed as they are to the daily continuation of their existence they can’t help concluding they must be waiting; and exposed to their continued waiting, they can’t help assuming that they are waiting for something. Just as we, seeing people at night waiting at a bus stop, are forced to assume that they are waiting, and that what they are waiting for will not be long in coming…life which goes on pointlessly misinterprets itself as ‘waiting,’ as ‘waiting for something.’” (Anders, 143)
We feel that we are being patient for some reason – we are “waiting” so we must be “waiting for something.” And as long as we can convince ourselves that we are active in our “waiting” instead of idle, we are able to justify the act. The belief in some murkily defined sense of “progress” allows for confidence that things are bound to improve over time – and thus we just need to wait for progress to take its course. We are “waiting” for the next election, we are “waiting” for the right candidate, we are “waiting” for the technological solution, we are “waiting” for that which will retroactively justify how patient we have been, we are “waiting” to be reminded that all we need to do is keep waiting.
Fidelity to the cause of patience provides its patrons with permission to scoff derisively at those protesting in the streets, those organizing in their communities, those pointing out that we have not “risen above” the inequity of yore, those “impatient” people who are saying “enough!”, those who have concluded that sometimes the only thing that waiting leads to is more waiting. Granted, as it has been transformed into a socially celebrated virtue “patience” has become its own reward – while those who have engaged in the aforementioned types of “impatience” will likely be amongst the first to admit that responding to “one shoe” rarely prevents other shoes from dropping. Given the state of the world at the moment, what truly justifies the belief that all we need to do is remain patient? If we genuinely feel that we are “waiting for something” how can we possibly measure the rate at which we are approaching that goal unless we turn that ill defined “something” into a firm shape. It may be that this “something” begins to take the form of a grand goal – such as justice and equality – but in identifying the “something” it becomes evident that it is not sufficient to be patient. We do not need to wait for the future, we can build in the now. As Lewis Mumford observed:
“if we would conquer the hell that now threatens to engulf us, we must not seek merely for a little less hell, we must not content ourselves with a sort of modified hell, with the brimstone deodorized and the heat made tolerable to us by a little asbestos insulation. Those who have conditioned themselves to hell do not, alas! realize that, now matter how many small improvements may be made in its accommodations, it is the place itself that is objectionable.” (Mumford, 186)
To patiently sit with eyes fixed upon the future is too often to ignore that the intolerable is all about us in this very moment, and thus our obligation is to respond to it in this very moment. We need to stop waiting for the next shoe to drop – and realize that too many shoes have already fallen.
Chances are good that there are those in your city/community working to address all of these falling shoes right now – if you can – get involved or start something new. Perhaps what change is waiting for is you.
Anders, Günther. “Being Without Time: On Beckett’s Play Waiting for Godot.” Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: A Spectrum Book, 1965.
Mumford, Lewis. Values for Survival. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1946.