It’s a familiar feeling: Shoulders tight with frustration and pulse rising, I stand in an agonizingly slow line or sit at the computer, waiting for something — anything — to happen. My temper hangs by a thread, and before long my mother’s voice echoes through my head.
She said it a lot. And, usually, too late.
After scolding my language, Mom would offer some encouragement: “Don’t worry, patience comes with age.” Years later, I really wish I had asked her how old one had to get, because I am still waiting. At this rate, I will become patient posthumously.
And I have lots of company, which does not make sense, because patience should come easily. In fact, this should be the golden age of patience. Things happen faster than ever. We swipe cards and touch screens, conduct business across continents in a blink, and seem to have access to the past, present and future all at once. We view the Martian surface as we cruise through the produce aisle. We can check bank balances, download music by Thelonious Monk and compose love notes, all while sitting in a staff meeting. We get more done in less time than ever. Instead of igniting a temperamental outburst, an occasional delay should be a nice respite.
It isn’t, though. A lot of us seem to have lost the knack of waiting, perhaps because hardly anything requires it. We expect everything immediately and are completely incapable of handling the briefest delay. We are the testy avatars of an on-demand age. Yet patience is still a virtue and an invaluable asset. The world needs more but has less. I and my impatient colleagues need to do better, but how? My mother is no longer available for consultation, so I looked to see what others have said.
I am exceptionally patient, provided I get my way in the end.—Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister (1925 – )
The Iron Lady has a point. It is easier to persevere if one knows that everything will turn out alright in the end. Job is an example. He trusted that all would be well, despite losing oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels and 10 children. He refused to denounce God. Job thus became the personification of patience in adversity.
There are lots of similarly patient people throughout history, who are held up as examples of forbearance, but demonstration is not enough. Speaking for my impatient fellows, we know what patience looks like, but we cannot emulate it. We need instructions. How is patience done?
Life is one long process of getting tired.—Samuel Butler, English essayist and novelist (1835-1902)
If forbearance becomes easier with age, as Mom said, and life is a long and winding road to exhaustion, as Samuel Butler indicates, is patience nothing more than weariness? Arguably, impatient people appear more active — rolling eyes, sighing as though they are about to suffocate, and speaking expressively, if not coherently. But patience is more than being tired, as anyone knows who has maintained a calm façade while secretly seething. Tired people are cranky, and cranky people don’t put up with much. It takes strength to contain a temper and still a tongue. As in yoga, there is a lot going on in patience, even if it looks like nothing is happening. So a lack of energy doesn’t seem to be a viable strategy.
Patience is a necessary ingredient of genius.—Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister (1804-1881)
Genius is only a greater aptitude for patience.—Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, French naturalist (1707-1788)
Being experienced in impatience, I can’t disagree that brains are connected to patience. And no matter how intelligent they are, patient people look smarter. Admittedly, I will never be a genius, and a lack of patience is just one of the reasons. But can I be a little more patient and a bit smarter?
Patient endurance attains all things.—St. Teresa of Ávila, Carmelite nun and mystic (1512-1582)
Like so many who preach patience, St. Teresa is not particularly helpful. The impatient cannot endure. We cannot simply pack our patience, as those annoying traffic reporters advise. Our patience cupboard is bare, if it was ever stocked. Can no one help us? How is patience grown, assembled, or practiced?
What I say is, patience, and shuffle the cards.—Miguel de Cervantes author (1547-1616)
Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.—Thomas A. Edison, inventor (1847-1931)
Finally! Here, from the geniuses who brought us the Man of LaMancha and the lightbulb, practical help! Instead of fretting, find something else to do. Waiting for the plumber? Don’t tilt at windmills, shuffle those cards. Stuck on the expressway? Electrify something. Listening to an endless loop of insincere on-hold messages? Maintain your composure and strike a tree pose. As for me, I am going to think about all the times I needed people to be patient with me. That will keep me occupied for a while.
Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant.