Can you remember the first time you heard someone say “patience is a virtue”? General internet wisdom sources the expression from a 14th century poem. However, “patience” was identified as a Christian virtue early in the 5th Century and considered a counter to the sin of “wrath.” For most of us, the expression entered our life as an antidote to that earliest of human inclinations: getting what we want when we want it.
Patience is defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. To be patient is to endure life’s irritations without the explosive emotional reactions that tend to attach themselves to impatience. In this sense, it is virtuous to bear life’s frustrations with dignity, exhibiting a calm and measured response.
Little “p” patience
Intuitively, we see the need for patience when facing daily annoyances: bad drivers, misbehaving children, uncooperative pets, disagreeable people, and pretty much anything that doesn’t go the way we would like. For the purposes of this post, I’d like to define patience as it relates to the daily irritants as little “p” patience. In this sense, “little” in no way suggests unimportant or easy.
Little “p” patience centers on managing the emotional reactions to daily disappointments. Day-to-day patience is about “keeping our cool” when we get annoyed. Little “p” patience helps us manage the stress of a world that seems determined to frustrate us. As I write this post, a new puppy in my life tests my patience with her demands for attention – I want to focus on a desired task and her preference is that I focus on her.
We struggle with patience because we want things how we want them. We want the service in the restaurant to meet our expectations. We want our children to behave properly, compliantly. We want the weather to align with our plans or the dog to sit quietly while we focus on another priority. When these things don’t happen, impatience rears its head and we react. We know frustration and impatience don’t help the situation but our emotions get the better part of us and we try to exert control in whatever fashion is available to us.
The day to day struggles are always better served with patience. Thus it earns a high spot on the virtue card. Though our fast-paced lives make it more and more difficult, we still generally recognize it as a desirable trait and muddle through with varying degrees of success. Even if we are inclined to relegate it to the bucket of platitudes, in moments of honesty, most of us will acknowledge patience as a virtue.
Big “P” Patience
Some recent conversations brought patience to mind in another way. As a perpetually recovering practitioner of impatience, I am acutely aware of its limitations as an effective tool for daily living. What about patience as it relates to the long game? Here, we cross over into what I’ll call big “P” Patience.
What is big “P” Patience? Consider for a moment the most important goals of your life: family, work, financial, spiritual, or whatever sits on your long-range radar. The big “G” Goals of where you see yourself going and what truly makes life worth living. We know that our big goals happen over long periods of time. The really important things on our radar take a different kind of effort: it must be persistent and focused over time.
Let’s face it, we all want immediate gratification and we’ve built a system of institutions, services, and even government that is incredibly effective at satisfying our demands quite well. We’re conditioned to buy impulsively, decide impulsively, and react impulsively. The idea that we delay our wants gets more and more difficult in a world that caters to the now.
However, life is built upon sowing and reaping. The big movements of our world happen on a timeline, scale, and flow that defies the impulsive. Patience for this long game means showing up every day ready to do the hard work of nurturing. Our big leaps forward need time, space, and nutrients to develop – there is no shortcut. No shortcut to experience. No shortcut to success. No shortcut to discipline. No shortcut to wisdom. Big “P” Patience is understanding the ebb and flow of life, finding your own place within it, and being willing to wait for its fruits.
Surrender to the long horizon on this path is necessary but that doesn’t mean acquiescence. Big “P” Patience requires us to accept that things must unfold in their time and recognize that the power is in that process. Here, we recognize that there is a “right” time and we have to figure out when to push and when to let go; when to sow and when to reap. Here, surrender is acknowledging the natural flow and going with it. This kind of patience requires that we let things unfold rather than always trying to make them happen.
Patience and Others
Big “P” Patience as it relates to others centers on allowing them to come to their own conclusions and not telling them the answers. It is also loving them while they do so. Yes, big “P” Patience demands that we allow others to make their own mistakes and recognize that the process is as important as the lesson. There is no lesson without walking through the crucible of experience.
Stop for a moment and consider your life to this point. The winding path was not one you would ever have imagined. Your best laid plans have been repeatedly foiled. Your expectations have been routinely disrupted. Quite likely, what you dreamed early-on has changed as have the things you once thought were important. If you pause long enough, you might even recognize the gift of “unanswered prayers” as your life has careened in directions away from your deepest hopes.
The Long Game
Big “P” Patience is about playing the long game of life as you loosen your fingers on those desires to which you most tightly grip. True patience of this kind is stepping back from willing an outcome in your time and allowing the hard work you’ve invested to unfold in its time. Here, we don’t stop working hard but stop being hard on ourselves when the bloom takes longer than we’d like.
Patience of any flavor is challenging but there is peace in surrendering to its necessity. Push yourself every day to embrace small “p” patience with all around you. Be intentional in the moments that will come and resist that welling wrath that follows frustration. Then, consider big “P” Patience as you push through countless obstacles, daily trials, and the ongoing slog of nurturing toward the harvests of your future. Lasting joy and the peace of expending yourself completely wait at those most meaningful milestones of life. Allow them to unfold and watch yourself grow in the process.