Learning Patience


Lord, grant me patience, and do it NOW!

Patience is the ability to wait for the fruition of our goals. Or, as the ancient philosopher Epictetus is reported to have said nearly 2,000 years ago, "Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig. I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen." It takes time to do worthwhile things, so those who lack the patience to persist will fail to accomplish much. Do we want to develop as much of our potential as possible? If so, we’ll have to learn how to be patient.

Being patient doesn’t mean sitting around waiting for things to happen. Instead, it means to work as hard and as long as necessary, without giving up, until we reach our destination. The ancient Egyptians didn’t sit around waiting. They made plans, preparations, and worked on their project until the pyramids were completed. The pyramids, then, are monuments to patience. They are a reminder that if we persist in our personal projects while enduring the necessary wait, we will finally succeed. After getting their fill of mulberry leaves, silkworms make silk cocoons, which the Chinese and Japanese used to weave silk gowns and kimonos. That explains the Chinese proverb, "With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown." Clearly, patience is power.

Patience is not only about enduring a long wait, it is also about enduring insults, provocation, and mistreatment without resentment, anger, or bitterness. Why put up with abuse? Because patience is also an expression of compassion. Because we are compassionate, we tolerate the faults of others. Because we are strong and they are weak, we accept their abuse with a smile and wish them well.

Buddhists commonly refer to patience as armor that protects the compassionate person from the barbs and verbal attacks of others. Interestingly, Leonardo Da Vinci had a similar idea, for he wrote, "Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will be powerless to vex your mind."

Almost all violence stems from anger, and patience often has the power to neutralize it. So, patience is a tool of the peacemaker. To eliminate possible misunderstanding, let me give one example of patiently accepting abuse and then contrast it with an example in which impatience is warranted.

In the first example, let’s say my supervisor at work always treats me condescendingly. Regardless how hard I work, he treats me without respect. Yet, I patiently bear his abuse. Why? Because I recognize he is a fellow human being. A human being with pain. Perhaps he feels threatened by my performance. Perhaps the source of his cruel remarks is fear. In other words, his abuse exposes him as the weakling he is. Instead of kicking a weak person by fighting back, shouldn’t I be compassionate? After all, if I bear my abuser’s cruelty with a smile, he may eventually learn that I am not a threat. If so, instead of upsetting him, I would have uplifted him. And by doing so, I would have made the world a better place.

However, at times, impatience is called for. For example, we must not tolerate child abuse or wife beating. Also, anything greater than zero tolerance of violence must not be permitted in our schools. Although abusers are sick and in need of help, our compassion is first directed toward their victims, who are in immediate need of help. After the victims are rescued, we can try to rehabilitate the abuser.

A society based on consumerism boosts profits by preaching the doctrine of impatience. "Don’t wait; act now! Don’t wait until you can afford it; buy it now with a credit card! Why prepare for your future by working hard for many years when you can strike it rich NOW by winning the lottery or a casino jackpot?" Patience is out the window and instant gratification is banging on our door. When we abandon patience, we abandon self-discipline. A world without either is a world without Mozart, Thomas Edison, or Tiger Woods. It is also a world without Olympic Gold Medal winners, astronauts, professors, corner pharmacists, auto mechanics and countless other members of industry, trade, and the arts. Can you think of anything worthwhile that can be achieved without giving up immediate gratification for long-term gain?

In a single day we can be faced with countless irritations: someone tailgates you on your way to work; someone cuts in front of you while you’re waiting in line at the post office; coworkers chat and laugh loudly in the next cubicle while you’re conducting a business phone call; you’re going out with friends tonight, but they show up an hour late, or you’re cooking dinner when you’re suddenly interrupted by a telemarketer. I’m sure you can think of many other examples. So, what do we do when we encounter an endless stream of minor irritants? Well, we can choose to become upset or we can choose to follow the example of oysters. They use an irritating grain of sand to create a glittering pearl. We can use our irritating experiences to create pearls of forgiveness, pearls of compassion, and pearls of understanding.

Learning to accept minor irritations prepares us to endure major ones. Those who lack patience find minor irritations or suffering unbearable. However, those who have mastered patience find great suffering tolerable. Patience has great impact on our happiness, for how can those who are upset and constantly complain be happy? Those who are always angry withdraw from the world; they curse the world. But those who are patient are peacemakers who embrace the world, bless it, and thank it for the opportunity to create pearls.

How can we expect to have others accept our weaknesses unless we are willing to accept theirs? Patience, then, is about respect for others. It is when we interact with others that we come to understand ourselves. For when we act with patience and understanding, that’s what we become. And when we act with impatience and anger, that’s what we are.

How can we commit to a relationship unless we have patience? Patience binds, heals, and supports relationships. Impatience is divisive. It severs friendships, dissolves marriages, breaks up families, and breaks hearts. So, patience is also about maturity. Patient people do not throw away pets and possessions or relationships and responsibilities simply because things aren’t working out as originally expected. Patient people bring out the best in them. Impatient people bring out the beast in them.

You say you’re not as patient as you would like to be? Not to worry, just be patient, for patience comes to those who wait. Aren’t all things difficult before they become easy? My final words on patience are taken from the eighteenth-century French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon (1707-1788), "The ability to accept delay. Or disappointment. To smile at setbacks and respond with a pleasant, understanding spirit. To remain calm while others around are uneasy. This is Godly patience. Never think that God's delays are God's denials. Hold on; Hold fast; Hold out. Patience is genius."

© Chuck Gallozzi
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