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Everyday Philosophy: How the British became bad at waiting

Philosopher NIGEL WARBURTON on why it's alright to be impatient while we wait for the full Sue Gray report, and why we hope for some gratification from it.

Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating the Downing Street lockdown gatherings. Photo: GOV.UK/PA.

The British are supposed to be good at waiting. But the drawn-out delay with Sue Gray’s full report has put many of us on edge. That line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot seems peculiarly apt:

“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”

Over 50 years ago the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel gave pre-school children a choice. They could either have a marshmallow immediately, or they could wait 15 minutes and have two marshmallows. He then left them in a room with a marshmallow on a plate.

Those able to delay gratification and so double their haul were shown in follow-up studies to have on average much better SAT scores and other educational results. This seemed to show that the ability to be patient was a useful asset, one that sets up children for long-term success.

Subsequent research suggests that affluence had its part to play – children from wealthier families tended to be better at delaying gratification, possibly because of different parenting styles. Ability to delay gratification may be as much an indication of social advantage as a cause of future success, but that doesn’t stop it being a predictor of success.

Perhaps, though, even the affluent are losing this ability now. In his recent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman entertains the idea that we’re all getting more impatient. Patience, he suggests, is the least fashionable but most consequential superpower. We want things, and we want them now simply because that’s possible. Digital technology has fed this desire, speeding up the delivery of just about anything that we used to have to wait for, whether information, food, or a taxi.

We’ve become so addicted to quick rewards that we get unreasonably anxious when we ever have to wait, even just for a few minutes. Some people have stopped reading books altogether because it now seems to take so long.

We get sucked into an impatience spiral: anxiety pushes us to get even faster, keeping up with the pace of our new world, and that ratchets up anxiety further until we can barely sleep. The only way out is to shift our understanding of what’s going on, abandon unrealistic expectations of speed when it’s not possible, accept that some things just take time. This is easier said than done though. Such stoicism is not easy.

Epictetus, a former slave and early stoic philosopher, put the so-called dichotomy of control at the centre of his teaching. It’s a simple idea. Sort out (if you can) those aspects of life that are “externals”, things outside your control. Separate these from the ones you can actually influence, and focus on the latter. Don’t let the rest bother you.

According to stoics, we can control our attitudes to what happens, but usually don’t have much control over events themselves. If the world isn’t going to deliver a quick result for you, then it is irrational to worry about that. Instead devise ways of adjusting your attitude to this recalcitrant reality.

A stoic approach to waiting wouldn’t necessarily be a passive one: if things can be sped up by your actions, then, by all means, speed them up. But if they can’t, that’s beyond your control and not worth the sweat. For stoics, impatience about externals is pointless.

I have my doubts about this attitude to life, though, not least because I care deeply about so many things that I can’t affect, or can only affect minimally, such as the climate crisis and the delivery date for the Gray report. That we can’t control every aspect of life strikes me as an important, if tragic, feature of the human condition.

It’s right and appropriate that we care about things beyond our control. Our happiness is intimately tied to so much that we cannot make happen, prevent, or shape. This is most obvious to parents, whose lives are so tied up with the health and flourishing of their children in a thousand ways that are independent of anything that we could possibly do. Trying to detach from this involves denying an important aspect of what we are.

So now we wait and hope for gratification from Gray’s full report, having seen the update. But whether this delay will deliver the equivalent of two marshmallows, or nothing at all, at time of writing at least, remains to be seen. But just because we can’t affect the process, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about it.

It’s OK to be impatient. And if we only get offered one marshmallow, it might even be worth grabbing that.

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