Sunday, June 17, 2012

Wanted: Patience

Patience, that elusive and difficult virtue, is always in short supply. As I dealt recently with several friends in turmoil, I asked myself, can patience be taught?

How can I help a student of mine whose family, like him, acts impulsively, often with anger and criticism? When I hear myself saying, "Be patient," I realize how useless and absurd it is.

We are all impatient in our daily lives--with stupid politics, advertising, telephone solicitation, traffic problems--and sometimes with good reason. It takes heroic saintliness to rise above these irritations and smile with patient understanding.

Earlier in my career, I investigated the history of patience in philosophy and the arts, with special focus on the Stoic and Christian meanings this word accrued over the centuries. I was fascinated to learn how much had been written about patience as spiritual fortitude, and how this is found in Shakespeare, Milton, and other writers of the English Renaissance, which I taught. The result was my first boook, The Triumph of Patience.

Although I learned a great deal about the virtues of resistance and endurance as they were once understood, I was no better off dealing with my own impatience over trivial mistakes or dealing with others. I sometimes see patience as a result of fear, leading to anger: fear that we are not being heard, not being respected, not getting what we deserve, or simply running out of time as we sit stupidly in front of a non-functioning light or clerk or computer.

We seem hard-wired to be impatient and angry, like the protagonist in Russell Banks's fine novel Affliction, which I am reading. It is a study in male violence, among other things, and has good insights into postmodern masculinity. The full meaning of its title will become clear as I read further.

I want to say to this character, as to my impatient student, "Slow down. Breathe. Listen. To listen well is a great skill that means putting your own ego on hold for a while so you can give full attention to another. And when you speak, think of what you are going to say so that you don't blurt out something harmful to others or embarrassing to yourself or both."

Yet no one can undo the schooling in impatience that is acquired from one's upbringing and one's culture, which moves a ever-more increasing speed. So perhaps the best I can do is try to slow down myself, listen patiently, and try to be a model of what patience might be.

Obama seems to be a patient man, rarely unruffled, or so it seems. Yet as a leader, he recently advocated action on various social and economic issues that cannot wait: like civil rights, he said, we cannot afford to be patient in the midst of crises that we are responsible for solving.

But on the personal and family level, waiting patiently is often just what is needed when conflicts arise. If impatience is like anger, patience is like love: hence the Bible says, "Love is patient." This is not romantic love, of course, but love in the fullest sense, the love that leads us to see others as worthy of caring, respect, and selflessness. It is the love that endures all things.

We all need a daily dose of patience; its source is within each of us.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

As usual, you've chosen an interesting topic. I work at and struggle with patience as we all do. As far as your student and how one might advise him, I'd try a logical explanation of what's happening within him, ask if he likes the way it makes him feel, ask him if it's possible for him to change the situation that makes him impatient.

If not--and usually we cannot make a line move faster or have a sibling vacate the bathroom sooner--tell him the truth, which is that the secret to eliminating his impatience is to change the way he reacts to the situation.

It is his choice to be impatient, just as it's my choice to be impatient behind a slowpoke driver, for example. If I can't change the situation, all I can do is change what's under my control, which is my reaction to it.

Only when I take a deep breath, back off to allow more distance between us, and settle for a slower speed, can I sit back, unclench my grip on the steering wheel, and enjoy the ride.

You probably know all this, but many people don't.