Being Patient is Hard Work

I watch my granddaughter vibrating, and I remember when I used to do the same thing.

Rose is six years old, and she’s finally entered December, the month of Christmas. Though she’s still weeks away, her eagerness for Christmas morning is nearly all-consuming; excitement pulses and throbs in every molecule of her little cells. This year her family is teaching her the calendar and show how to X through the days that remain before that magical evening. They’re hoping to teach her patience.

I remember, as many of us can, the thrill of those days when our parents had to remind us to wait, to be patient, that Santa would be here soon. I learned to write the countdown of days on my school notebook the way I heard Cape Canaveral do their countdowns to rocket launch: C -12 (Christmas minus 12), C – 11, C – 10. I also pulsated with excitement as each number got smaller. And I also heard the word that must echo every December in millions of homes around the country:  “Be patient.”

Being patient is hard work.

Of course it is. I didn’t know until much later that the root meaning of “patience” is “suffering.” Its Latin roots begin in the word passio, meaning “suffering,” itself derived from the verb patior, “I suffer.” Its Proto-Indo-European root means “to hurt,” and its Old English antecedents refer to a “devil” or “enemy.” At the base level of patience, it seems, lies a world of hurt.

This proves that what my granddaughter has to endure this December – and what her parents so blithely counsel – is no easy thing to bear.

If we follow the winding path that’s led by the nuances of “patience,” we’re in for an interesting journey. For a long time I’ve pondered the fact that when the Apostle Paul, that old New Testament preacher, is pressed to define love, he starts his list off with the word “patience.” “Love is patient.” That’s an odd word to go in the Number One spot.

More modern writers will tell you Love is all you need, Love makes the world go around, Love is strange, Love is blind, Love is the answer. (Let’s not bypass Yogi Berra: “Love is the most important things in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”)

Paul takes the challenge seriously. What puts patience in the #1 spot?  Paul has the gift of being able to think long-term, to keep the big picture in mind, to not get bogged in the details of every day. That is a crucial component of love, to be sure. I love my wife, but when we bicker and I wonder How in the world did we ever get together, patience takes me out of today’s irritation and into our inexplicably rich decades together. Patience points me forward. I forgive her by nightfall, as we seem to do with each other over and over. I remember (as our wise premarital counselor told us) that the rocks in her head fit the holes in mine, and vice-versa, and I’m ready to tackle another day together.  I am uniquely blessed. Living beyond my irritation is a holy thing after all.

Paul mentions two people who exemplify patience: a farmer and Noah. Both of them have to endure the uncertainties of today and tomorrow, the lack of visible progress, the worry about how serious is today’s setback, the ritual of marking up the calendar, until the outcome finally becomes clear.

Letters to a Young Poet is a literary classic among writers who admire the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian author from the turn of the century.  Letters collects the correspondence between Rilke and a young cadet at a military academy who was struggling to discern his vocation. The cadet was ultimately so uplifted by their correspondence that he published the letters in book form after Rilke died in 1926.

In one letter the cadet asked Rilke if he had the talent to be a poet. Rilke responded:

“I want to beg of you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that Is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

When we gaze toward the future, what we see day after day is a locked room. Patience allows us to believe that there is something of deep value behind that door. It will not yield to pounding or violence, but it will open some day of its own mysterious accord to reveal the unexpected answer.  Whether it’s forty days, or a growing season, or our forty-third wedding anniversary, nothing worthwhile shows its true face to us right away. We may seem to be getting nowhere. But the flood recedes and Noah sees solid ground; we’re greeted by a bloom that delights our spirits; the honesty of our words is captured in our best efforts; or we fall into a deep embrace that can’t be restrained.  The payoff is delicious. Then we know that Love is not without suffering. At its best Love is, after all, patient.

“Patient” is not only an adjective but also a noun. Hospitals are filled with patients, not all of whom are particularly patient. When my neighbor, a doctor, would hear the comment “Patience is a virtue,” he’d chuckle and correct them. “No, patients ARE a virtue.”  The presence of people who are willing to wait, to trust, to endure, and sometimes of course to suffer, is a crisis for families and an opportunity for healers.

It’s interesting, I think, that patients are so-called not just because they suffer or wait. The word “patience,” rooted in passio, suffering, is closely related to the word “passive.” Hospital patients may not “suffer” physical pain, but they suffer the removal of initiative and action. Patients are acted upon.

Everyone confined to a hospital  bed knows the routine of being awakened, being prodded or poked, being moved from one location to another, and having little if any say in the matter. In my one brief hospital stay I was told when it was time to walk, when it was time to eat, when it was time to exercise, when to rest and when to awaken and when to receive another injection. I asked for none of this. My autonomy was left at the hospital entrance.

In a broader sense, living as a patient is increasingly the norm in today’s society. The young used to initiate their after-school or weekend play, forming teams from the neighborhood and staking out a field; boys used to make themselves cowboys and Indians in the woods and girls became mothers and hostesses around their little tables; adults of all ages played instruments and made music together for entertainment.

Now our youth are transported to participate in activities organized and led by others: soccer practice, dance classes, piano lessons, ad infinitum. Entertainment comes by watching the small screen of a cell phone. Enjoying music has become a passive consuming and sharing of videos by famous stars.

At the other end of the age spectrum, growing old leads us to being increasingly “acted upon” instead of acting. In younger times, our income was tied to our unique initiative, skill and productivity. In older years our income is tied to more outside forces – government policy, the rate of inflation, the state of the stock market. We depend on passive income.

Family time used to be set in motion by what we parents researched, planned and did with our children. Now those plans are in the hands of our own busy sons and daughters. The time we get to spend with Rose is not ours to determine. We wait for her parents to set their schedules.

Where new elementary schools used to pop up every few miles, now the growth in construction is in senior communities and nursing homes. The population of aging baby boomers continues to increase, leading to more people suffering accidents, declining in health and becoming less capable of caring for themselves As medicine enables people to live longer, infirmity is no longer a brief period at the end of one’s life; it now describes many years of our existence. The elderly have to wait for someone to answer their bell, to bring their meal, to knock on their door and change the channel.

Our culture is increasingly forcing upon us the status of being a “patient.” Broken by a few decades of relative self-sufficiency, our lives begin and end in waiting for others. Developing patience, in other words, might be the primary task of adulthood. Young Rose is having to learn patience now in the slow passing of endless days before Santa Claus visits her house.

It’s useless to tell her that while one form of waiting will soon be over, her life will involve more and more waiting as she grows up. That would be, as Rilke says, an answer she would be unable to live now. We can only pray she’ll grow more autonomous, more independent, and more self-sufficient each year. We’ll pray that she’ll enjoy and employ whatever initiative the culture of her day allows, for as long as her body allows. The suffering of being “done unto” will interrupt her life periodically, and if she’s wise she’ll use that time to teach herself some of the necessary losses that inevitably await her.

Gradually enough, her vibrating excitement will ease, and the status of being a “patient,” and the need to cultivate patience, will rise again to the fore. Learning to accept our innate passivity might enable her to recall and give thanks for even these difficult days of waiting.

Of such days, over and over, is a human life made.