Patience is Not a Virtue, It’s a By-Product

PatienceIf you seek to be patient, you will fail. Because we become patient by seeking something else. In fact, we become patient by seeking everything else

PATIENCE LIKE AN EXORCISM

When my eyelids creak open on a Saturday morning, it’s usually because I’m being poked in the forehead. By two fingers attached to two little bodies that want Saturday morning cartoons. Now.

When I remind them we don’t start cartoons until the sun is up and Older Brother is awake—when I tell them they must be patient—the waiting looks like an exorcism. The little man with the serious eyes flops face-forward on the bed, as if his lifeline has been cut. The one with the golden curls arcing in every direction imitates her hair, twisting this way and that as if being run through with electric current.

Unfortunately for all of us, Older Brother sleeps like a college student. So the empty hours roll out before us, with two impatient kids bent on getting what they want, and a dad clinging to the strands of his own patience.

And I swear they’ve plotted ahead of time.

One spills the juice while the other forgets to wipe and drips all the way down the hall. One uses the couch as a launching pad and his head as landing gear; while he sobs, the other one forgets where the coloring book ends and the kitchen table begins. In the midst of all the chaos, rapid-fire requests for cereal and TV and more cereal and TV.

Nothing works and a dad’s frustration grows. He’s executing his parenting like a textbook, but inwardly, a temper tantrum is getting underway. He wants his cup of coffee (now cold) and his newspaper (now yellowing). He’s trying to wait patiently, but he doesn’t stand a chance, because he wants to run from it all.

THE MYTH OF WAITING PATIENTLY

We yearn for patience to take ahold of us and to free us from our restlessness and frustration. We know impatience does violence to our relationships. And yet, the harder we strive for it, the more slippery it becomes.

Because we’re looking for it in all the wrong places.

The dictionary defines patience as “an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.” Patience amounts to burying our frustration while we wait for what we want. Patience is delayed gratification with a pleasant-looking façade.

And so we blame a culture of instant gratification for training us to be impatient. We blame 1-click purchasing on Amazon, instant downloads on iTunes, express lanes on the interstate, microwaves and fast food and on-demand cable channels. But in doing so, we are avoiding a hard truth: patience is not what happens when we get good at waiting for what we want; patience is what happens when we get good at letting go of what we want.

PATIENCE BEGINS WITH AN EMBRACE     

Regardless of your religious identity (or lack thereof), there is a story in the Bible that will resonate with you. It’s a parable called The Prodigal Son.

And it’s the story of an embrace.

The central figure in the story is a wealthy father, whose son wishes him dead and asks for his full inheritance immediately. The father grants him his wish, and the son departs for a distant land and a life of indulgence. Eventually, financially broke and emotionally broken, the son returns, hoping his father will receive him as a servant. As he approaches his father’s home, however, the father joyfully runs out to meet his son, wrapping him in an embrace and then wrapping him in celebration.

When we read this story of embrace, we tend to focus on the final embrace, and we overlook the fact that the father’s embrace began with his son’s betrayal. When his son demanded his fortune and abandoned the father, the father embraces what is—he doesn’t argue or bargain. His son’s decision is completely unacceptable, yet he embraces it.

And it’s the first embrace—of betrayal and abandonment and loss—that paves the way for the second embrace—of joyful reunion.

PATIENCE IS BENEATH THE TEMPER TANTRUM

Patience begins with an embrace of our circumstances, but it grows as we enter into the condition of our hearts, when we embrace everything we find there. Because impatience is essentially the urge to run from our inner temper tantrum, the urge to take control so we don’t have to feel it.

But when we release control and we embrace the substance of our souls, we will notice the tantrum dies down and distinct emotions begin to emerge from the brawl—fear, sadness, anger, grief, loneliness, confusion. And as we embrace them, a calm sets in.

On a Saturday morning, a dad restrains his impulse to yell and punish, and he sits down in their midst, breathing deeply and entering into the tantrum of his heart. He finds monsters there, scary things from which he prefers to run—feelings of inadequacy, fear that he will not be able to meet the needs of his own children, sad shadows of loneliness in the struggle, and the empty land of not-good-enough that he thought he had left behind.

A dad sits with it, embraces it all, and his internal tantrum begins to quiet. And as the din recedes, another voice begins to emerge. A dad begins to hear a whisper inside.

And it’s the whisper of change and transformation and redemption.

PATIENCE IS A WHISPER

In the end, patience is the fruit of listening to this whisper within.

Every day, in my office, I bear witness to it. I watch people of every gender, race, and social strata attend to the tantrum within. I watch them courageously endure it, and I’m there with them when they begin to hear the whisper:

It’s quiet but it’s as loud as truth.

It’s gentle but it’s tenderness shouts down all the other harsh voices of condemnation and loathing and entitlement and fear and loneliness.

It’s saturated with love and with grace, yet it has an iron-strength.

It leaks tears, but it oozes joy.

It gives nothing tangible, yet it brings a deep sense of sufficiency, even in the midst of pain and brokenness and imperfection.

It is a paradox: it is a peaceful embrace of everything that is, and yet it offers another way. It’s a whisper that can only be heard once all the other garbage is embraced and yet, once heard, changes everything that is, through wise and loving action.

When the children are engaged in their eternal bickering, or your spouse is infinitely obtuse and void of understanding, or the cashier gets the order wrong again and again and you’re already late, or the people you love step on your needs instead of meeting them, or there is too much to do and never enough time to do it, or you’re waiting on the diagnosis, or the paycheck is slow in coming—listen.

There is a constant whisper beneath the surface of the tantrum. It delivers us into a peaceful-steady patience. And it heals. 

Comments? Have you heard the whisper? What did it say? Please feel free to share in the comments below.

DEAR READER, This was a hard post to write. Trying to put words to complicated things. If you got this far, I’m quite grateful for your patience! On Tuesday, the Tip will be an effort to make it all a little more tangible. Sincerely, Kelly

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Theresa

    Life is 95% patience and it’s hard!

  • myinnerfatman

    What a wonderfully thought provoking post.

    I have found that patience that whispers so loud it hurts the ears, but never in terms of interpersonal relationships. It has always been in the midst of athletic endeavors. I look forward to the Tuesday update to receive more clarity.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks for this comment. I think I’m actually going to focus the Tuesday post on interpersonal relationships after hearing this thought!

  • Michelle

    For me, impatience comes when I try to apply my rules or timing to a situation or person not under my control: Toddlers, teenagers, God, and the postal service come to mind. When I get out of myself and focus on them, impatience is (sometimes!) replaced with charity and acceptance. Thanks as always for the thought-provoking posts. Hope you got your coffee.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Michelle, That’s why I defended microwaves in the post…they heat up the cold coffee. 🙂

  • Janet Lee

    Oh how I needed this. Thank you!

  • Kim

    Thank you. So much.

  • jlanewell

    I often wonder how you keep coming up with ideas for this blog that keep me thinking and looking at my life and evaluating my circumstances. You did a great job and once again it is presented in a fashion that will have me thinking for days.

    In Feb of this year I had surgery and as life would have it we ran into a few complications. As I read this tonight all I could think about was my husband and what an amazing partner, friend and father he is. He has patience. He has taken care of me for many months and many trips to see several different doctors. When I would be so frustrated and want to know when I would be better or even closer to my old self, the doctors would all say the same thing, It is going to take some time. Time…the last thing a workaholic with a little control issue wants to hear is that you need to give it more time to heal. I was over eager to get back to work and to get back to all the things I thought were so very important. But as the days turned to weeks and the weeks have turned to months, it has been a struggle to let go and give it time. But my husband still does not get impatient. He does not have expectations of me. He does not want me to do more than I should. Instead, he warns me to slow down, he encourages me to take breaks and to rest. When I went back to work he would remind me to only work the half day I was suppose to work. When I was more than determined I could go to the grocery store alone, he told me he thought it was too soon and when I came home defeated because dang he was right, he got me something to drink and told me to rest while he put away the groceries. He continues to be more concerned about me than he is about me doing things either around the house or for our family.

    All I can say is I could only hope to have a quarter of that kind of patience when dealing with someone recovering from surgery. If I was him, I would have lost it for sure by now.
    As a now recovery workaholic but still hanging on to the little control issue, perhaps I too might get to the point he is at someday. Although I think I might have to let go of my little control issue first. I guess I could say that for sure will take some time.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Jennifer, I wonder sometimes, too. 🙂 I just had a conversation with a friend about how one of the hardest things is for an achievement oriented person to be limited physically or cognitively. May you continue to grow in patience!

  • Nadia

    I recently ruined a relationship due to one of these ‘tantrums’. Granted this person was one of those ones who trod under foot almost every need I had in that relationship (like the Prodigal Son), however had I seen this post prior, I might not have clinched it with such finality. I guess I hope there is a Prodigal Son’s father on the other end somewhere, if I ever have the guts to face that person again. I guess when we mess up in patience, we might hope the other party in the relationship will take on the ‘fathers’ role. But I don’t think we should count on other people to do it, I think if we are self-aware and introspective enough to be reading and subscribing to blogs like this one, we should be able to get our heads around it, set the example. Thanks for the awesomely timely post Dr. once again. 🙂

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Nadia, I think you make a great point. Staying in an abusive relationship is not the outcome of patience, but ending it well, in a way we can be at peace with, just might be. Thanks for making an insightful distinction!

  • michelle

    Thank you for sharing. Patience is so important, and so difficult. I hadn’t thought about how I rarely feel patient when I’m trying to be patient. Your writing opened up an opportunity for me to think about it, and I think that perhaps patience happens for me when I’m living completely in the moment. When I try to control outcomes or “wait patiently,” it’s very difficult, but when I am looking for the beauty of one particular moment and striving to enjoy something about it, it never occurs for me to be impatient. I should do that more.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      I so appreciate this. On the Facebook page this week, I commented that I’m not trying to establish a final word on patience but to open up a discussion. So refreshing to hear the ways it has shone a new light on it for you! And I’m with you, instead of being patient, let’s be in the moment.

  • Loretta

    just thank you, your thoughts speak so loudly to my soul and give me peace that I can breathe and enjoy all that I hold dear (my husband and four children), even when my patience seems not to be present

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