Patience – My Most Valuable Asset

I’m considered by many to be a patient person. It wasn’t always so. My parents had a bit of trouble practicing the arguable virtue of patience, so I had to learn it on the streets…almost literally. I even know when it happened: the summer of 1977.

As I said, I wasn’t the most patient young person. Three things happened at about the same time that had a remarkable influence in changing that: the book’s of marine biologist John C. Lilly, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, and driver’s education. Yup, pretty much what you would’ve expected. :-)

Lilly’s research sort of started it all for me. At the time, I was a voracious reader of everyting I could find about dolphins…a group of mammals I had admired since the 60s when Flipper was a TV star, and my parents took me to see dolphin shows at various west coast seaquaria.  I of course gobbled up the work of the marine biologist, and dolphin specialist, John Lilly. Like many marine biologists and oceanographers of the time, he tended to romanticize and anthropomorphize his subjects. Whether valid or not, Lilly attributed dolphins with a great deal of patience, or possibly forbearance. Regardless of the science of his research, that thought stuck with me.

Enter Robert Heinlein. I’d read a lot of science fiction when I was growing up, but for the longest time (to me) Stranger in a Strange Land eluded me. Sometimes you simply have to be old enough to grasp a lot of what a book targeted at adults has to say. While I appreciated many aspects of the novel, there was the idea of “waiting is”. In a nutshell, it was the idea that every action is, at its core, nothing more than a waiting for the passage of time until fulfillment is reached. Things like rushing and interminably waiting were nothing more the perceptions of degree; much as a guard standing all night in the rain without any rain gear and a young couple making out all night long will likely have two vastly different subjective thoughts on the length of time that passed that was, objectively, the same for both.

You combine my romanticized ideas about dolphin patience, combined with the science fiction Martian idea of waiting being an aspect of all things, and you start to see a nascent appreciation of the theory of patience. Enter driver’s ed, where I could put these ideas into practice.

For me, the single most important element of my learning how to drive during summer school wasn’t the instruction, or the road tests…it was the ironic three-mile walk back home from school after the class was done in—I’m not exaggerating—90°+F DC-area weather with 90+% humidity on a course that was 2/3 uphill. The walk took around an hour, give or take, five days a week for six weeks. During those lengthy and uncomfortable walks, I’d think about dolphin patience and how “waiting is”. Slowly, it became real.

The start of the walk to the end was nothing more than waiting for the period between start and end to progress. It became obvious that it was true of all the other things that we did: trying to finish a test in the allotted time, standing outside of a dressing room (often with another’s purse in hand), and more. Everything was a built-in, inevitable wait. Once I accepted that. That EVERYTHING was waiting and that nothing could be done about it other than wait, that’s when I learned patience. For patience is, in large part, nothing more than an acceptance of waiting.

Since that summer, with rare exception, my strength as been in being able to wait in a less stressful way than most other people. This certainly came in very handy during my father’s illness. When he was quickly declining, but not yet at end-stage, he’d get some somewhat psychotic anxiety attacks. My ability to just sit with him, be calm, and wait for him to calm himself down was the toughest test of my patience I have ever had. People, especially people who are dying, mostly just want someone to be willing to sit and wait and listen. Few people seem to be able to handle that anymore.

Of course, this patience thing has been tested many times. When given a task which is unlikely to be finished in the fixed amount of time given as a parameter, the ability to wait through the beginning and end period is crucial. Yes, sometimes waiting can seem like hurrying at breakneck speed, but at no point are you actually rushing. You have the patience to deal with the now.

Most waits are, in and of themselves, also made up of smaller waiting periods. Eventually any wait can be broken down sufficiently that even the most impatient person doesn’t think it too onerous to take on. That’s the main battle. After that, patience comes simply from endurance—of stringing together those doable small waits. Before long, you’ve made it through a long wait without hardly batting an eye. Congratulations, patience has been won.

I found an unexpected piece of dialog about this rather unexpectedly in the movie Unforgiven: “Look son, being a good shot, being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed. A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya.”

See, patience isn’t just about being able to wait. It’s about not treating time, or the lack of time, as a big deal. When people stop being patient, they become more error-prone because they no longer thing about what is happening now, they become more concerned about maybe what might or might not happen in the future. Think about sports. In almost every sport, athletes talk about those time when they are “in the zone”. One aspect of that is they often describe it as not rushing, of being in the moment.

Toward the very last few months of when I was playing tennis, I discovered that being in the zone was all about patience. You didn’t rush. You merely focused and paid attention. You became efficient because anything else was distracting. You can both stop thinking and also take time to consider what you are doing (sorry about that paradox). And it can be called upon more easily than you think. With a recent commercial by Diana Taurasi where she says, “I live in the Zone,” I have no cause to doubt her. When you see her shift into the Zone, there is little that will stop her. Others recognize it, too. During the 2008 Olympics Kara Lawson commented: “I mean when we’re not playing so well offensively, sometimes the best offense is to just give the ball to [Taurasi] and let her operate.”

Patience is an amazing thing. I know it’s about more than time or waiting. Perhaps it’s also a self-confidence thing. You are able to step aside and not let your ego get in the way. Heh…waiting, focus, attention, no ego…I’m starting to sound like I should be in a monastery on some high mountain plain. Perhaps all it takes is having the time to practice. Monks get that time. I had that time when I was walking home from driver’s ed. In our current rush-rush society, maybe there isn’t enough time for people to take the time. Which is a pity, for they’d probably be better managers of their worlds if they did. Less stress, more efficiency. And all it takes it learning how to wait.

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