What Is Patience?


I thought I was pretty good with patience. I hardly ever resort to more than a mild expletive if I’m cut off in traffic. I mostly refrain from shouting, “Will you hurry up!” when I walk behind someone slower than I am. I’m so good at patience that I get to use the “Patient Parking Only” spots when I take my kid to the doctor’s office.

But we were shopping before Christmas, and I was feeling pressed for time, but trying to maintain control. The kid was making a decision. I noticed my impatience, took a deep breath, straightened my posture, and waited. He said, “Don’t make that face.”

I didn’t know I was making a face.

I suppose it’s marginally better to not yell “Will you hurry up!” than to yell it, but maybe that’s not all there is to patience.

When St. Paul describes love as patient, kind, etc. (1 Cor. 13.4), he’s probably not talking about a white-knuckles restraint from flipping a stranger off on the highway. So what’s the alternative?

Maybe a better view of patience is to embrace time, to “redeem the time” as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (Eph. 5:16), to make the most of it, as if it’s an irreplaceable commodity.

There are reasons to be short-tempered with someone, excuses for being rude, demanding, irritable, and the rest. But the heart of impatience is the conviction that I’m stuck here and ought to be somewhere else. That can happen because of bad planning (mine), the other person’s choices, or external circumstances, such as the weather. There are actions to be taken, in the here and now, to respond to those circumstances, whether it’s a conversation about punctuality or a different route on the freeway.

But anger, recrimination, and resentment don’t change the past — whether it’s my fault, someone else’s, or the universe’s. And resentment doesn’t improve the outcome of my current situation.

But here’s what I think may be the deeper truth. I’m never in the wrong place, and it’s never the wrong time. It may be a bad place — from trivial to tragic. It may be between a rock and a hard place. But here I am, and my situation is the effect of billions of years of cause and effect, free will and external circumstances.

If life has meaning — and I believe it does — then this moment is part of the meaning. The trick is to find the meaning at the infinitesimal intersection of past and present.

What brought this to mind was a trip through traffic a couple of weeks ago. I had to be school at 4:15 to pick up my kid. It was important, but not urgent, because they weren’t going to drop him off in traffic if I was late. But it’s respectful to be on time. I had things to do on the way, some optional and some necessary, and I kept checking the map app and the time and thinking, OK, I can do this thing now. And even though the traffic was heavy, the path kept opening for me.

As I drove toward the school, I saw a train crossing the street several blocks ahead, and then within two blocks, the crossing bar lifted, and the cars started moving. I picked him up at exactly the right time with a sense that I had been in a flow of time for the past two hours.

Trivial, yes. But the triviality spoke volumes, maybe more plainly than it would have if the stakes had been higher. At every stage of the journey, I had been at the right place, at the right time, because it was this place and this time. The cars that cut me off in traffic kept me from waiting for the train.

The sense of flow — and possibly the flow itself — would have been absent, if I had spent the time thinking, “I’ll never make it,” “I shouldn’t have stopped there,” “Why does it have to be raining today?”

For a few days after, I held on to the feeling of being in the flow of time, and then it dissipated, as these things so often do. How do you hold on to a feeling?

Feelings are flitting things and trying to hold on to them is like trying to hold the wind.

But now I think patience is about inhabiting the moment. Accepting that you’re in the right place, even if a voice inside you says it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Because it’s not the place that matters; it’s the path.

Planning is good. Being prepared is helpful. Getting on the road on time to be there early is a good stress reducer. But where I am now is where I am now, and cursing myself or the other driver or the rain doesn’t change anything.

Everything takes as long as it takes.

This moment is always pregnant with possibilities. There’s always a lesson, something to be observed, a service to be performed, an opportunity for gratitude. “Redeem the time” means to receive its value in exchange for something. Patience is the price I pay to receive that value.

Patience is being fully present now, instead of running back and forth to berate the past and fear the future.

Efficiency may be good. Speed may be necessary. But knowing when to move and when (and how) to be still is patience. I still need to work on not making that face.

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

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