Patience and the Restless Sleeper

There’s a thing about living in France that always amazes some outward suburban zone of my American brain: I go into the store, I get checked out by the cashier, I pull out my credit card, I put it in the little credit card machine, and a word appears on the screen: Patientez.

Be patient. In the United States, when dealing with machines, the signs and recordings are rarely rooted in such a quasi-moral, such a Ciceronian admonition. Rather, they tell you that they are busy processing your information. Or maybe they tell you that all operators are busy and please wait on the line until the next operator is available. But to be asked to wait is a moral degree away from being asked to be patient. Waiting, after all, can be done impatiently – it is all physics, it is all being a body in a place in time. Patience, however, is being a certain kind of subject, having a certain kind of attitude.

I’ve long had a Barthesian revery that if I could just understand the “patientez” sign, I would grasp some larger mythological characteristic of France.

The French, in the American popular mindset where all the slurs reside, are not noted for their patience.  They are noted for being snobby, being stylish, and wearing berets. The English have a whole image of the impatient French, too busy by half, and too clever by exactly that quantity too. But do the French think of themselves as patient? Or is the admonition to be patient a symptom of a notion that the French aren’t patient?  And yet, aside from the tendency to honk the carhorn as much as they do on the overcrowded streets of Los Angeles, I haven’t noticed a great deal of impatience in Paris.

When I first came to France in the 80s, I was struck, as every American student was struck, by the French resistance to standing in line. I’d go to the cafeteria in Montpellier at Paul Valery University and every day, it was the same thing: a crowd would assemble before the doors were opened and then at the great moment when they were opened, stampede like beasts being herded up the slaughterhouse ramp. I remember being literally lifted on a wave of humans at my back. In the United States, there are many fundamental disagreements about politics, race, sex, and what have you, but there is one thing we all learn: don’t jump ahead in line. There are tv shows in America that glorify serial killers, but if the serial killer was shown as a perennial line jumper, I imagine the viewership would drop off. Because jumping ahead in line is seriously obnoxious to the American meritocratic mindset.

Over the last forty years, France has Americanized in many ways. One of them, I think, is the line. Sartre must be saddened by this: he spent some time thinking about lines, and even wrote extensively about them in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. He did not like the American line, with its lunkheaded seriality. A culture in which everybody patiently stands in line is a country lost to the revolution. What Sartre was looking for was the group in fusion, when seriality – that old bourgeois shell – is cast aside. As for instance when the doors of the Paul Valery cafeteria opened and we could all rush in and feast on cold, disgusting rabbit.

Sartre does not, I believe, discuss patience in the CDR. For some reason, there isn’t a large literature on patience. What literature there is starts with the Christians. Plutarch in his essays urges the idea that young people who are no longer students should not talk over their elders or those who have interesting things to say – and in that respect, Plutarch has things to say about impatience. Cicero, in On Invention, juxtaposes patientia with magnanimity as a virtue. Cicero was not a great philosopher, but he did convey, in his writings, a great deal about the philosophical culture of his time. Here we find a tantalizing clue to a moral attitude, or an attitude towards what is moral, among the Roman gentry, who at this point were channeling the relics of the Greeks, whose city states they had conquered. Cicero associated magnificence with seeing broadly, being great-souled – Aristotle’s crowning virtue. Patience is something new here, something that contrasts with the tie between magnanimity and reputation in Aristotle. Patience is an ability to endure contraries – or at least bear with contradictors. Something glints here and then is gone, for Cicero does not pause, here, to tell us what he means. Patientia, however, does have status in the Roman self-image, among the other virtues, and it came to be personified and put on some Roman coins. Still, patience was a tricky topic for the ever male Romans,  since it was associated with passivity, and passivity with the female. It was the Christians who first really took it up.

The locus classicus of the Christian theme is Tertullian’s short essay on patience. Here, finally, patience enters into the pantheon of virtues in a distinct way, even though Tertullian’s treatment of the whole topic is philosophically raw, a regression from the fine logical acrobatics of Aristotle or the Stoics. Tertullian posits two kinds of patience – one coming from God (which he links with caritas, going so far as to substitute patience for caritas in Paul’s famous hymn) and the other coming from the Devil. This leads our inner Socrates to the obvious categorical question: if both can be labeled patience, then how can patience itself be a virtue? Rather, it would seem that patience, in itself, lies originally outside of ethics, and only when joined with some attitude does it become virtuous or vicious. One could not say, for instance, that there is honesty that comes from God and honesty that comes from the Devil. Honesty would seem to be wholly on the side of virtue, and thus be a primary virtue. In spite of the logical glitch in Tertullian’s writing, you see his claims uploaded into the whole future history of the Christian apologetic. The division between God’s and the Devil’s patience goes all the way up through Kierkegaard


Only the insomniac or the prisoner in solitary knows pure patience. I am the former. Not so much now, although the fit still happens (and by fit, I mean, the consecutive nights of insomnia – I’m talking about the real insomniac, not the piker), but more in my forties. Ah, my forties, a decade riddled with the fear of death and the fear of failure. Or was it just failure? In any case, I would have weeks in which the black circles under my eyes became as fat as innertubes. My familiars were the look of the alarm clock radio blinking 3 or 4:00 and the crashing sound of the garbage men clearing away our collective debris at 5 a.m. I’ve read that sleep researchers have found that most accounts of wakefulness exaggerate the reality: or as one book on insomnia puts it with clinical clarity, “Patients with insomnia routinely report more severe sleep disturbance than is evident on traditional PSG measures” – PSG referring to the polysomnograph, a device which, much like the polygraph, hooks the patient up to various electric sensors to monitor heartrate, breathing and such. But it is small consolation to me that if you’d hooked me to a polysomnograph I probably dozed off between 3 and 4 some nights.

Waiting in a line, or being stuck in traffic, reveals the objecthood of your neighbor as an impediment. Your neighbor is something “in your way”. This supposes, of course, that there is a way that is yours – gifted to you by your intention – and that your property is being trespassed upon, in a manner of speaking. This is one reason why impatience has a certain tone proper to it, a mixture of righteousness and insult, a tone that comes from standing on one’s rights, the tone in which one shoots the burglar in the house. The gridlock comes to life before your very eyes as a malevolent attack on your right of way, and by an easy projection, those who embody this attack are either feeble minded or evil.

The patient and the impatient, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, see different worlds. Patience doesn’t see a world in which a way is especially laid out for him. There is no right, here. There’s contingency and getting along and the occasional short cut, and the end of the day, where none of this is particularly remembered – not the minute you saved by going 60 in the short cut, not the minute you lost by standing behind five people trying to buy milk from the incompetent clerk.

With insomnia, however, the person in the way is yourself, body and soul. Patience can’t count on its usual tricks, it can’t reflect on optimal mental foraging strategies to get through this moment with some balance between appointment kept or milk bought and midterm satisfaction, because the impatient person and the patient person here are locked in same person, the one taking the blanket now off because it is too hot and now on because you have to hide your head from even the least glimmer of light. The insomniac is literally in his own way – and this time, it is his way. It is not something designed by the store architect or the city planner, and the appointments are not negotiated with the boss or the school.

It is a strange thing, this project of consciousness to achieve unconsciousness, this little suicide, the eye leaping into its own pupil, a dark into which you enter unawares, or not at all. And it is here that patience comes nakedly into play. What is patience, after all, but an ascent to some higher level, either intellectually or morally, from which one can measure events according to some temporal and validating scale. As we all know, on that height you can be tempted by God or the devil. Diabolical patience waits for the moment when all of one’s repressed impatience can be avenged, in one blow. Divine patience lets that impatience go, out of a sense of, well, voluptuousness. A temporal voluptuousness. The semi-conscious feeling that in a life, one has time for all the things that life will contain, whether it is short or long.  If you gain the minute driving home by cutting off some other driver and making the light, what is that minute, after all? It is gone before you can really enjoy it. The exchange value of that minute, compared to the minute you spend sitting behind another car in traffic, does not self-evidently make for a profit. Especially as the energy put into impatience, or the impatient gesture, is a cost that adds up, that resonates to some unknown extent in your temperament. To be impatient when sleepless exacerbates the sleeplessness, feeds into it, and makes your own physical system a stranger. Not only a stranger, but a stranger behind you in the line or in traffic, the one whose vibes you can feel. That restless stranger was forged by you in every impatient moment, and it will come for you if you haven’t made a practice of letting it go. If you haven’t practiced patience.

However, this isn’t to say that patience is its own reward: how could it be? What type of reward is that? When Kierkegaard considers patience in one of his Edifying discourses, he speaks of the way patience as a means to an end can’t be taken as an infallible justification: the patience of a merchant who lays out his wares and waits for a customer could be rewarded by nothing at all – there’s no guarantee that customers will come, or that they will buy.

The reward of patience, however, is revealed to the insomniac as being something hard to name: it is an acceptance of oneself as never completely known, never completely oriented.  And never really an owner at all. For you can’t own your sleep. I want to say here that the ultimate reward of patience is something like sleep, that sleep is an example, an unlooked for example, of magnanimity, of magnificence, of the great soul in the great souled person. Sleep is a kind of tolerance.

This goes counter to our current, all awake metaphoric. Sleep, in this metaphoric, is conformity and cowardice. To be woke is a virtue both political and cultural – or so we are told. But the problem with the woke model is its eventual and deep conflict with broadness of vision. It is essentially all on, and leaves no space for that moment of temporalization that is proper to patience; that moment when short term and long term are defined by one’s life, and the lives of others, lives that overlap with one’s own.

Insomnia has long been my enemy, but it has also been my oracle, my instructor in the maze of impatience and patience. The lesson I have taken is that without patience, all virtue, and even all sanity, falls apart. Patience is always a stranger, a mode of defamiliarization, a thread that leads you out of the labyrinth, a threshold insight that insists on perspective and proportion even when your nose is squeezed up against the world’s big inviting pane.  But one comes, at last, to certain zen-like assertions – there’s no way in the way: it’s all open – which, though they are satisfying variations on the notion of a non-well defined set, fall short of the power and glory of the insomniac’s insight – then I begin to think that patience itself has begun to try my patience, and I have once more tossed and turned on my (now metaphorical) bed. All I know is this for an ending: when I am patient, finally, I can sleep. I can dream lucidly.  If I could only be patient enough…

Roger Gathmann

Roger Gathmann

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