atience is a virtue. How many times have you heard that mantra? The practice of patience is a fundamental teaching in Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. It is meditated on, chanted about, written about, sung about, prayed for and lamented in its absence. Its opposite number, impatience, is seen as a shortcoming.
In their 2004 book, “Character Strengths and Virtues,” American psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman along with a team of researchers attempted to systematically identify and classify the most valued positive traits. Out of the 24 so-called “measurable character strengths” they came up with, patience was not one of them. Hope made their list, as did humor, kindness, authenticity and many others.
If patience isn’t central feature of our strengths and part of what people like about us, why then does it get the importance it does in religious, spiritual and cultural dogma?
I once had an extremely patient aunt. She did little but work and take care of her adult children, setting aside dreams of travel, new jobs, exploring the arts, and so on. She had the “patience of Job.” That patience led her to wait until she retired to do all the things she’d long been planning. That day finally came. Instead, she died a few months later. Her story isn’t so uncommon.
Though my aunt died young, I can’t help but further contemplate my notion of patience and its meaning. Is it a “ridiculous” concept, as Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard once suggested, adding, “Everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.”
I find myself in between. I do think of death, but I also ponder life. As a result, I vacillate between Bernhard’s sense of patience as “ridiculous” and taking the “everything” he ridiculed very seriously.
I admittedly struggle with patience. I’m often told I’m “impatient.” The quickest way to get my blood boiling is tell me to “be patient.” Why? I’ve spent much of my life being nothing but patient. So much so that instead of feeling impatient, I’m more like Constance (or Lady Chatterley) in D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Remember Connie? She was the one, “always waiting, it seemed to be her forte.”
I’ve spent a great deal of my life waiting — ever-so-patiently, and for too many years. I waited for a marriage to succeed when everything suggested it wouldn’t. I then waited for the right time to return to graduate school. I needed to make sure my children were (mostly) independent and could handle my periodic absences.
Speaking of children, I patiently waited three different times in my life, nine months at a time, for their birth. My patient path continued as I watched them learn, make mistakes and grow, all the while wanting to hurry them along, sometimes giving them more help than they needed. Clip clop.
I regularly feel like a wild horse that’s been bridled and made to walk along a known and expected path at a steady, slow pace. Patience — clip-clop; patience, clip-clop; pull back. But inside, I’m chomping at the bit to run to the edge of a cliff, jump to the next valley, and explore further.
Does this inner wild horse make me an “impatient” woman? Not really. Internally, I chomp at her bit. Inside, I feel like I’m “always waiting.” Within, I’ve accepted life’s bridle and walking along a prescribed path at what feels like a snails pace.
I’ve come to believe that the wild horses that agree to slow down and keep the pace of our workhorse brethren, obeying societies “patience is a virtue” rules, are paragons of self-control. In a word, they’re patient. Are they more virtuous because they suffer though it and for it? And is suffrage virtuous?
Don’t mistake my candor for complaint. I gladly wear the bit, walk the path, and regularly slow myself to a leisurely walk. I’m told that’s what’s best.
But please, for the love of all that is virtuous, when on occasion I pick up the pace and trot, or even gallop, please don’t tell me to be patient. Patience is what I’m leaving behind, at least momentarily. Eventually I’ll slow down, fix my hair, adjust my bit, and return to the path.
As Agatha Christie once wrote of Olga Stormer, a woman character in one of her Hercule Poirot novels: “Beneath her self-control … was the impatience of the keen brain watching a slower brain laboriously cover the ground it had already traversed in a flash.” When you put patience aside, all is traversed in a flash. As it should be.