If 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.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.