Tempus fugit, a phrase commonly inscribed on antique clocks, comes to us from the poet Virgil’s Georgics. In its original form, it served as an ode against sloth and procrastination. However, for the impulsive, time is something as fleeting as sand slipping through an hour glass. In an impulsive context, time is irretrievably connected to immediate gratification that must be seized before the moment is lost.
The person shackled by impulsivity is constrained by the one variant of time that matters—the present. Deutsch and Strack posit that “impulsive processes are myopic and that it takes reflection to construe the past and the future” (Handbook of Implicit Cognition and Addiction, Deutsch, Roland and Strack, Fritz,). Additionally, reflection requires patience, a virtue that is absent in most who suffer from impulsive behavior. The impulsive perceive reflection as the untimely delay of gratification and eschews it regardless of the consequences. And so, the impulsive do not learn from the past or prepare for the future, but see only what is immediately before them and snap at it like a fish hungry for bait.
In their 2014 paper concerning how time and impulsivity affect decision-making in impulsive gamblers, Grecucci, Giorgetta, and colleagues note, “A common Latin saying is ‘tempus edax rerum’ (Ovidio, Metamorfosi, XV, 234) that is, ‘time devours things’. This intuition takes account of our tendency to incorporate in valuation both the stimulus itself (the reward) as well as how long it will take for us to receive it. Reward is an important and ubiquitous aspect of decision-making. Intertemporal decisions seem highly related to impulsivity…The degree to which one chooses the emotionally relevant response (i.e., choosing an immediate reward) may be determined by the lack of control over immediately available rewards, or in other words by impulsivity.” In other words, a significant span of time, a long enough wait, is all it takes for a great reward to disappear from the mind of the impulsive when in the presence of something enticing at hand’s reach.
Unsurprisingly, patience is the antidote to the exigent call of impulse. In the gospel, our Lord counseled His disciples, “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19). In commenting upon this passage Saint Gregory of Sinai writes, “With regard to patience, the Lord says ‘You will gain possession of your souls through your patient endurance.’ He did not say ‘through your fasting’ or ‘through your vigils.’ I refer to the patience bestowed by God, which is the queen of virtues, the foundation of courageous actions. It is patience amid strife, serenity amid distress, and a steadfast base for those who acquire it. Once you have acquired it with the help of Christ Jesus, no swords and spears, no attacking armies, not even the ranks of demons, the dark phalanx of hostile powers, will be able to do you any harm” (Saint Gregory of Sinai, On Commandments and Doctrines, p. 229, The Philokalia, vol. 4). Patience requires courage and brings tranquility. It is not about fighting, but accepting. Saint Ambrose of Milan put it well, “patience is proved by enduring (ferendo) rather than by resisting (resistendo)” (Book 2 on the Death of his Brothery Saytrus, PL 16.1315b).
This God-bestowed gift of patience is required to no longer be subject to the impulsive desires swirling in our hearts. Patience affords us the opportunity to break out of the gratification-filled desires of the present and reflect upon both similar past actions and the future consequences of potential impulsive acts. In that sacred space created by holy patience, we can find another luminous path leading not to the object of our impulse, but to Christ Himself. Saint Peter of Damascus notes, “Patient endurance is required before anything can come about; and, once something has come about, it can be sustained and brought to perfection only through such endurance. If it is something good, this virtue assists and guards it; if something evil, it confers relief and strength of soul and does not permit the person being tempted to grow faint-hearted, thus experiencing a foretaste of hell. Patient endurance kills the despair that kills the soul; it teaches the soul to take comfort and not to grow listless in the face of its many battles and afflictions. Judas lacked this virtue, and because of his inexperience in spiritual warfare suffered a double death (cf. Matthew 27:5). Peter, chief of the apostles, possessed it, being an experienced warrior; and when he fell, he defeated the devil who had overthrown him. The monk who once lapsed into unchastity acquired it, and conquered his conqueror by not yielding to the counsel of despair that urged him to abandon his cell and his solitude” (Saint Peter of Damscus, Book 2, 24 Discourses, p. 222, Philokalia, vol. 3).
If time devours things for the impulsive, time offers up enduring treasures to the patient. “Patience,” writes Saint Augustine, “is a companion of wisdom, not a servant of lust: patience is the friend of a good conscience, not the enemy of innocence” (On Patience). Evagrios calls patience “an armor of stillness” (On the virtues that counterbalance the vices, PG 79.1141). Above all, “patience has hope, hope that cannot be put to shame” (Saint Ephraim the Syrian, On Patience). That hope for something incomparably greater than what the impulse of the moment offers is what we need to strengthen by prayer to God and by immersing ourselves in holy scripture. Enduring impulses can be a terrible trial and tribulation, but during that tribulation if we remember Saint Paul’s words to the Romans, we can make it through that tribulation, “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us.” (Romans 5:3-5). Then, we will come to realize, as did the Shepherd of Hermes of old, that “patience is sweeter than honey, and useful to God, and the Lord dwells in it” (Book 2, Commandment 5).