March 17, 2016
Patience in an Age of Growing Impatience
A patient person has great understanding, but a quick-tempered person displays folly -- The Book of Proverbs
Taken from the book Homespun Wisdom: Path to the Good Life
By Eugene Hemrick
Cultivating true friendship, creating community spirit and developing the art of silence don't happen overnight. They take time and require patience. In his book Patience: How We Wait Upon the World, David Baily Harned bemoans the fact that patience has fallen by the wayside, due in part to a world that champions busy-ness.[i] In this chapter we will explore the essence of patience and how best to cultivate it in light of our hyper-active lifestyles.
During my first driving lesson, I not only experienced patience par excellence, but to my dismay, I discovered its redeeming powers. As I was turning the car around to return home, I panicked and backed into a tree. Immediately I jumped out of the driver's seat and turned the keys over to my dad. He in turn returned them and said, "Let's try again." Because of that patient act of kindness I was allowed to start over again without fear.
My dad was patience personified. One time when trying to put new heater boxes on my 914 "Poor Man's Porsche" in an ice cold garage, its old rusty bolts wouldn't budge. Puffing gently on his cigar, he patiently worked on those bolts until they gave into his pressure.
Some people are blessed with enormous patience while others are more prone to lose it quickly. What is patience and what is a prudent way to cope with impatience?
A frieze on the east side of the Supreme Court captures one of its best meanings. A small rabbit is at the very end of one its sides, and a turtle is on the other end. They are easy to miss because of where they are placed. The cute animals aren't on the frieze for decoration, but represent Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare. In the fable, the hare and turtle challenge each other to a race. As would be expected, the hare jumps off to a quick start. Seeing he has outdistanced the tortoise and realizing he can easily win the race, he stops to rest. Meanwhile, the slow-moving tortoise never gives up but plugs along steadily. His slow, deliberate pace enables him to catch up with the resting hare. Before the hare can pull himself together to resume the race, the tortoise crosses the finish line, winning it. The moral of the story is laws must never be created hastily, but must be conducted in a steady, patient manner.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul expands on the meaning of patience in stating, "The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, gentleness, faith, mildness and chastity."
Note how St. Paul connects patience with endurance. In Latin, patience means to suffer through a trial or challenge. When it is coupled with endurance, it translates into steadfastness and being steel-like in upholding it.
As ideal and Spartan as is endurance, achieving it is very demanding. I must confess that writing this book took enormous endurance. There were many times I read what I had written and it was terrible! At one point, I almost gave up on it. Had it not been for the encouragement of friends, it would not have been written. It is so easy for stamina to break down and so difficult to restore it and continue on. Often we need outside help to sustain it.
Having worked on a golf course, I have witnessed impatience at its worse in golfers breaking clubs over their knee and trees, and tossing them into ponds. We can laugh off this and say it's just a sport. So why do they become impatient? It is because the sport is no longer a game: it has become a battle of the ego!
Patience in writing or playing sports is one thing; patience with people is much more difficult. When a person is perpetually critical, negative, and never says a kind word, he or she can test our patience to the limits. This holds equally true for people who are fickle and have irritable idiosyncrasies.
Early in my priesthood I came across a wonderful prayer for nipping impatience in the bud, "Lord, please don't let anyone or anything break my spirit!"
One way to envision the tortoise's success is to see it in terms of physical stamina. However, the tortoise exemplifies much more than this; it is an undaunted spirit that is willing to wait out the time needed to complete the race. "Waiting out the time" is paramount to the success of remaining steadfast and resisting hurriedness. When this principle is practiced, it is one of our best means for strengthening our constitution. When it is violated, foolish things happen.
During my life, I have experienced numerous car accidents due to impatient drivers. I especially remember one incident in which I was driving the speed limit and an impatient driver sped around me and crashed head-long into another car.
In the Second Book of Kings the steadfast spirit of which we speak is beautifully portrayed in Elisha's final farewell to Elijah. Elisha pleads with Elijah to pass on his spirit to him before he leaves this earth. We then read, "Elijah was shrouded in the whirlwind, and Elisha was felled with his spirit; throughout his life no ruler could shake him, and no one could subdue him. No task was too hard for him, and even in death his body prophesied."[ii] In saying "no one could subdue him" we have an excellent example of the principle, "Don't let anything break your spirit; hold steady as the tortoise did!"
As previously mentioned, patience is the virtue of waiting. To this we can add, it is also the virtue of letting time take its time.
As a child, there were times when I wanted my mother to fix something immediately and would dance around impatiently. She would look at me and say, "Hold your horse, it will be fixed in due time!" She would then add, "Rome wasn't built in a day!" From that lesson, I learned how foolish it is to rush time. Why do we say this? It is because time moves one moment at a time at an unchangeable pace. Once we realize time moves at its own pace and not ours, it helps us to be more tolerant and not to rush it.
During the writing of this book I received a phone call that causes me to wonder if we need to reassess the important role patience fulfills in the life of our children. The call was from an irate grandmother who was caring for her granddaughter: a very energetic young child to say the least. The grandmother told me she received a call from the girl's teacher who felt she should be put on a tranquilizer because she was hyperactive. What infuriated the grandmother was hearing of similar cases in which teachers were recommending tranquilizers to calm down children. "Instead of working it out with hyper active children, they just drug them," she exclaimed.
Over the years I have taught every elementary grade. I remember one class in which the children were non-stop energy and were taxing my patience to the maximum. I also remember looking for a quick fix, something to knock them out. Sometimes impatience can drive us to do this. The phone call from the grandmother and reflecting on my own experience of working with children is cause to wonder what ever happened to the school of thought that believed steadfast patience and not tranquilizers is the best pill we possess for dealing with hectic moments in the classroom? What has happened to the model teacher who practices the principle of not letting anything break her or his spirit? Where are the heroes of the classroom who stick it out and turn spirited students into model students through their patience? Are we becoming too quick in resorting to "quick fixes?" And too, we must wonder what would happen in teaching, as well as in raising a family and working in the workplace, if patience was studied in greater depth through the eyes of saints and our religion. Take, for example, St. Gregory the Great who tells us patience is the safeguard and root of all virtues. St. Luke points out we possess our soul through patience, and St. Peter reminds us the Lord's patience is our salvation.
St. Gregory would be the first to admit it is very demanding to remain virtuous. To counter this, he would encourage us to embrace the powers of conversion that patience possesses. What is envisioned in saying this? It means that when we have lost faith in our ability to patiently overcome a difficulty, we must remember life is a series of conversions and not give up. Sainthood is not turning to God once and for all, or finally putting to rest a fault; it requires continuous conversions. I wonder how many more teachers would be exemplary educators if they realized their work in the classroom consists of repeated conversions aimed at renewing and refurbishing their efforts in serving their students.
What does St. Luke mean when he says patience is the means of possessing our soul? One interpretation is seeing the soul as the very center of our life. This translates into patience centering us and enabling us to be in possession of our self.
There were many times in our home, my mother would fly off the handle. And then there were times she should have and didn't. In moments like this, you could sense she was in full possession of her emotions by the way she looked directly at you. Her waiting out the moment was one of the best lessons ever taught in our home on the power patience possesses for centering us and putting us in full possession of our self.
St. Peter's lesson on patience as the means our Lord uses to save us encourages us to remember the times God should have given up on us, but doesn't. Through patience God saves us. So also is it our ultimate means of saving ourselves.
How might we deal best with our age of growing busy-ness? I believe it is prompting us to be clear sighted about the effects impatience is having on us. To get at what is, is to be clear-sighted, and to be clear-sighted is to practice prudence. It is the direct antithesis of becoming matter-of-fact.
As advanced as we are, the expectations of technology have spawned an age of increased impatience. It is true we enjoy high speed trains and planes, fast foods, faster cars, instant news 24-7 and the computer age. Equally true is progress requires critical thinking in order to enjoy true progress. How, for example, is it affecting us psychologically, physically and spiritually? I strongly believe a new age is needed in which we deepen our consciousness about the effects of technology on us. One good way to accomplish this is to compare the present with the past, to study the contrast between where we have been and where we are going.
One of our psychology professors used to point out, "In times past people had horses to care for. When they rode them, it took time to go from one place to another. We lived in much slower times."
He then added, "Today we get into a car, press a button and off we go. Not only off we go, but we also go fast, and when we don't go fast, off goes our temper!" His advice to us was, "We need to realize we no longer live in the past, but we should never forget it. In knowing it, we can learn much about what the present is doing to us. Making comparisons between the past and present broadens our understanding of the changing stages of life we are experiencing. At the moment we are in a new stage calling for a rethinking of it. The better we rethink it, the more wholesome will be our life." And we need to add, "The more patient we will be!"
This being said let us pray.
The Lord is my pacesetter; I shall not rush.
He makes me to stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity.
He leads me in the ways of efficiency through calmness of mind.
And his guidance is my peace even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day.
I will not fret.
For his presence is here; his timelessness, his all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of activity, by anointing me with his oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows; surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits.
For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord and dwell in his house forever. [iii]
[i] David Baily Harned, Patience: How We Wait Upon the World (Boston, Cowley Publications, 1997) 1-4
[ii] 2 Kings 2 9-12