“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.” (Joyce Meyer)
I’ve been thinking about patience a lot lately. Patience is not easy. The world seems to be getting ever more crowded and more of us are expecting instant satisfaction. Blame it on the internet, or the microwave, or our overscheduled lives, but we seem less and less inclined to pause and allow life to unfold at its own pace.
That’s not always bad.
In our day-to-day interactions, patience is a kindness skill sorely needed and one we can cultivate with practice. But, in another realm, a realm where a clock ticks steadily toward catastrophe, patience is a luxury we cannot afford. Here, we must put aside patience and take decisive action.
When Patience Is Not the Answer
As much as I have advocated for patience, I’ve come to see that there are times when it is not the kindest response. How long do we tolerate the behavior of corrupt politicians? How long do we permit cries of “Second Amendment” to muffle the loss of innocent lives or overshadow sanity and safety? How long do we allow climate change deniers a place at any table?
When lives are in the balance and the earth and its inhabitants face cataclysmic destruction, the kind response is not patience. It’s action; it’s coordinated effort; it’s hustle. Education is key, for most rational people will sit up and take notice if they are given the facts and not deliberately misinformed. Our patience with the uninformed or misinformed need not extend to patience with those who deliberately cling to ignorance or deny truth because it may be inconvenient to their personal agendas.
In those times when the kind response to an individual may not be the kind response to the world, tilt in favor of the world. Tolerating corruption, immorality, and willful stupidity serves no one but the corrupt, immoral and stupid.
Where Patience Is the Kind Response
Under most circumstances, I still consider patience to be a significant defining virtue and an essential element of kindness. It’s presence—or absence—announces who we want to be and what sort of world we want to foster.
There are two areas that challenge our patience. The first is time. We get frustrated and impatient because we perceive that we don’t have time for this—for traffic delays, for slowpokes in the grocery store, for waiting for someone to do something we think should already have been done. They slow us down; we want to move on to our next task. We let kindness fall by the wayside as we feel our blood-pressure rising. Sometimes we snap.
Unless we choose to live as hermits on a mountain-top, there are always going to be people and obstacles that delay us. So, we need to change our thinking. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I so important or overscheduled that I don’t have time to extend patience or kindness?” If the answer is “yes,” think about that for a moment. If you’d like to see a more civil and compassionate world, maybe your job description includes practicing empathy and patience. Wouldn’t it be easier to stand in line at the grocery store or the DMV if you knew that you’re contributing to a healthier and saner society? And that you’re also modeling these qualities for others?
The second challenge area, while somewhat related to time, is more about our expectations of people. We get impatient when someone can’t get it right—when they blunder or repeatedly fumble to do something that seems absurdly easy to us. It’s human nature that after we’ve learned something, we tend to forget how hard it was to learn. Once a skill becomes routine (driving a stick-shift, creating a spreadsheet in Excel), we forget that it wasn’t always embedded in our brains or muscle memory. We lose patience for those who are struggling to learn this “simple” skill. We often throw up our hands and just do it ourselves, reasoning that it’s easier than waiting for a beginner to develop proficiency.
While that may be true, the kindest and most helpful reaction is to encourage the learning process via our patient presence and willingness to help if asked. Instead of getting irritated, think of it as holding a space for someone to learn and grow. That’s an act of generosity. There might be a benefit down the road for us, too: if our work colleague, spouse, or child masters this new skill, they may be able to relieve us of the task at some time in the future.
There are gifts in patience—if we make the time to look for them.
How to Cultivate Patience
Whether our patience is wearing thin as a result of time, expectations, or simply low tolerance due to fatigue, hunger, or overwhelm, there are a few strategies we can employ to bolster our patience. The first is simply to pause. Pause and think about what feeling or acting on impatience will gain you; think about whether you are likely to regret uttering sharp words; and think about who you want to be and how you’d like this interaction to play out. Secondly, engage your curiosity. Examine what might be behind your feeling of impatience. Is there something else going on? Are you really so inconvenienced that you can’t let this go or breathe through it? And breathing is another strategy. Take a few deep breaths and will your body to relax. Impatience and tension feed on one another. If you reduce one, you diminish the other.
Lastly, forgive yourself when you slip. Unless you’re a saint, there will be times when impatience wins. Acknowledge it and tell yourself you’ll do better next time. Patience is a skill; and like every skill, we get better with practice.
Patience is not one of my strong suits. I will never be its poster child. At best I can say I’ve moved the needle with some practice over the last few years. And I’ve also come to clearly recognize when impatience is the kind and necessary response.
“I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.” (Edith Sitwell)