Minor Vices: Impatience

The Ars Moriendi is a spiritual meditation text produced in the first half of the 15th century. The second chapter is of great interest as it names five sins that beset the dying and offers spiritual exercises for how to overcome them: lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice. Ars Moriendi manuscripts appeared originally in a “long” form and then a very popular "short" form centered on woodcut prints.

A late 19th century reproduction and commentary gave the following account of the third temptation, impatience:

The dying man lies in bed towards the right, both arms disengaged above the bed-clothes ; a demon with bat's wings is near the bed on the floor to the right. With his left foot the dying man is kicking away his medical attendant, while a woman (his wife?) stands in a deprecating attitude. In front of the bed is a maid-servant with food and drink, looking in astonishment at a table, which with its contents has been capsized, evidently by another kick of the dying man's foot.

The Ars Moriendi reads: “Then follows how the devil strives to tempt the dying with impatience, saying to him: “look how great the pain he suffers.” With this and with a few flatteries and pointing at this the devil derides him saying, “look how well I have deceived him. The devil tempts the dying man through impatience, which rises from a serious illness, saying: “why do you suffer this agonizing pain, which is intolerable to every creature every creature and is utterly useless to you, by right such great suffering should not be used even though your sins demand punishment. Also, what makes it worse, no one commiserates with you as everyone believes his to be unreasonable, and although friends may speak compassionately to you they really want you to die for the sake of the inheritance.”

What is worth noting is the manner in which questions of self-exercise around timing and tempo at the end of life today live on in very specific, small scale gestures as well in major decisions. We can note, for example how with respect to assisted suicide in Switzerland, the topos of “financial incentive,” and the impatience of nefarious relatives, is an ever present concern for which a range of participants and observers are on the lookout.

More descriptively, I came across a small example that I think illuminates the very “minor” form that the question of excess and deficiency takes around patience and its deficit today.

A British hotelier, who suffered from Motor Neuron Disease (ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease) decided to end his life with the assistance of a Swiss organization. In a documentary that follows his story, he and his wife are waiting, sitting at a table at the apartment in Zurich where he will die. He asks his wife if he should take the first antiemetic solution that will prepare his body: she gets annoyed and says that it is up to him. We are certainly not in a domain of codified ritual with its timings and its ceremonial forms.

He drinks the antiemetic solution and they wait. They must wait (at a minimum) twenty minutes before his stomach will be ready to contain the lethal dose of sedative. The solution is reputed to be extremely bitter. The man’s wife sorts out different flavors of chocolate and she begins asking him which one’s he would like. She focusing a lot of attention on the choice of flavor and the man seems to get annoyed: “How long have we been here?” he asks, seemingly as much to himself as to those around him. The man and his wife talk about how much time there is to go. The man recognizes that he could be seen to be being impatient, he adds: “Not that I am in a hurry but I am just interested to know how long we have been here.”