About a year ago, I was driving up Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley with our girls. I can’t remember where we were going, only that it seemed urgent and that we were running late. Also, we were hitting every single red light as we headed towards the Oakland Hills. As we braked to a stop at about the 8th red light, I lost my usual motherly composure, smacked the steering wheel, and said “WHY are we getting all the red lights today?!?”
That’s when Fiona piped up from the backseat: “I guess God’s teaching us to be patient, Mommy.”
The point of that little story isn’t that I have unusually holy children. Spend five minutes in our house and you’ll know otherwise. The point is that Fiona was quoting back to me something I’ve said to her many times, something I’d lost sight of in the moment because it is hard to be patient.
Hard, but so, so important. The older I get, the more I believe that patience is the most important virtue.
I don’t know if many people would agree with me. Before I had kids, I used to enjoy reading shallow entertainment magazines from time to time (that’s not a judgment against shallow entertainment magazines, by the way. I’d like to think that, when all three girls are in school, I’ll immediately set about volunteering to save the world. In reality, I’ll probably grab a cup of coffee and a copy of Us Weekly. Then I’ll save the world). Anyway, the last page of Vanity Fair magazine is always dedicated to something called “The Proust Questionnaire” where each month some famous person answers a variety of questions. One of the questions is: “What do you consider the most overrated virtue?” I can’t cite exact figures, but I can tell you that multiple times whichever famous, beautiful, wealthy, accomplished person was answering the question responded: “Patience.”
Measured against how most of the world measures success, patience looks weak. It implies passivity, and passivity does not usually get you famous or rich or accomplished. The attitude commonly associated with great worldly accomplishment tends to be something like: “grab the bull by the horns,” “live life on your own terms,” “eat or be eaten.” To be patient, on the other hand, is defined by my Webster’s Dictionary as: “bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint; manifesting forbearance under provocation or strain; steadfast despite opposition, difficulty, or adversity.” And do note that there’s no promise of success coming at the end of all that calm, uncomplaining, forbearing steadfastness.
When you spend any time around children, it’s so clear that patience is something that has to be learned, that it’s contrary to our very nature. Children are born impatient; babies instinctively scream for what they want until they get it. Once words are learned, the cries turn to demands of “I want this NOW, I want that NOW!” one thousand times a day. My own children will tell you that the phrases I utter most are: “Please be patient!”, “Just a minute!” and “You’re not the only child in this house!” I preach patience like a broken record, until I am so impatient with their impatience. So, we’re all working on patience in our house.
Why? Because more than successful lives, I’d like our children (and us) to live lives of joy and love. And patience is like a petri dish where joy and love grow like crazy.
Let’s start with joy. Joy is a present-tense noun. It lives in the now. Impatience, on the other hand, is forward looking. It arises from the fear (and you know how I feel about fear!) that I’m not where I should be right now: I should be at that important appointment, I should be through the check-out line by now, I should be married/have kids/have gotten that promotion, I should not have to be asking you 25 times to put on your shoes. Patience, I’ve found, is like taking a deep soul breath. It’s saying, I’m not going to think about where I should be, I’m going to just be. Here. Now. When I’m not looking forward, trying to peer over the horizon of my impatience, is when I can actually look around me and feel joy for the blessing of what is.
And then there’s love. One of the most quoted definitions of love — certainly the most quoted in our house — comes from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 in the Bible. And how does it start? “Love is patient.” I don’t think Paul made a random choice by listing patience as the first attribute of love. If love is an Oreo — stay with me here — then patience is the creamy center that sticks the thing together. To really love takes time, because people take time, listening takes time, understanding takes time, change takes time. When I’m feeling impatient with somebody I’m trying to love, it’s usually a sign that I’m loving myself – my timeline, my needs – more than them.
So. This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how to get patience, right? Unfortunately, patience being what it is, I don’t think there’s a quick and easy fix. Like anything that doesn’t come naturally, patience takes practice. Practice takes discipline. And because discipline doesn’t come naturally to me either, it’s always helpful to have a personal trainer. My personal patience trainer is Herbert the Snail.
Huh? Well, Herbert the Snail is the star of a little song that I grew up with; you can listen to it here. I sing it now from time to time to torture our kids. The really helpful part comes in the chorus: “Remember, remember, that God is patient too. And think of all the times when others have to wait for you.”
No question that God is patient. Patient with me, patient with others. (In my less charitable moments, I often think that maybe God is just a little too patient with others, but who am I to judge God?) When I feel like impatience is getting the better of me, it helps to think of all the times that Jesus is probably banging his head against his steering wheel over me (“You’re doing that again?!?” or “C’mon, girl, how long do I have to wait until you talk to me already?!?”) And then I think of all the people whom God’s put in my life who are so very patient with me. Exhibit A: My husband, who comes home every night and listens to me. Exhibit B: My parents, who somehow still love me despite seeing my worst like nobody else has. Exhibit C: My kids, who so often have to wait for me to finish up what I’m doing and just play with them, read to them, get them a snack already! So, I figure that if all these people in my life — oh yeah, and also God — can be so patient with me, then just maybe I can stand to pay a little patience forward.
I am sure that there are still some steering-wheel-smacking days ahead of me. But I can’t get Herbert’s song out of my head, so I guess I’m resigned to going through life learning patience at a snail’s pace.
(Thank you for your patience with that last attempt at humor)