NOT A DAY GOES BY when we don’t face some sort of frustrating delay or obstacle, and too often our response is to strain against how things are. That tends to happen to me when I’m rushing somewhere in my car, but those feelings may suddenly sneak up on you while the water fills the tub ever so slowly, or as your child struggles with clumsy fingers to master the complexity of a shoelace, or on those days when nothing—not your Internet server, not your spouse, not the postman, nobody!!—does things when or how you want.
Impatience seldom makes things happen faster or better and usually only causes us grief. It’s like an inner blaze that burns us up without giving off any warmth. That would be bad enough, but it is also a short step from impatience to rage, and we all know what harm can come to ourselves and others because of uncontrollable anger.
I’d be remiss not to point out right at the outset that there are circumstances where we should not be patient and where patience is not a virtue. When confronted with injustice or the needs or suffering of another person or other situations where our actions could make a difference, we have no business patiently taking our time. Patience comes into play when it is our own burden we are bearing, or when there really is no course of action available to us at that moment to alleviate the situation…
Where we get into trouble with impatience is in our reactivity. The problem confronting you may be entirely real: You’re late. You need it now. There will be consequences. But whatever the problem, no matter how great or how small, it is one thing to face those life issues just as they are, and quite another to slop grief, worry, regret, impatience, and other such mental condiments all over the situation. Reactions like these only increase our burden by adding a whole extra dimension of inner suffering (and often hurtful behavior) to an already difficult experience…
Patience is…a tool we can call on to help us endure when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances we did not choose and could not avoid. [This] is revealing something essential about patience as this attribute is understood in the Jewish tradition. The Hebrew word for patience is savlanut, which can also mean “tolerance.” The same root gives rise to words that mean “suffer” and “endure” and also the noun for a porter who carries goods. We can learn something fundamental from this pool of words that derive from the common source: patience means enduring and tolerating, and the experience may even bring us elements of suffering.
We get a hint of the same message in the English word “suffer,” which means both to experience pain and to tolerate, or put up with. So patience is not just about waiting, it’s about bearing…Patience comes into play when you are already ticked off, when the situation already has you starting to fume. It’s then that you reach into your pocket to pull out your patience, which helps you bear the burden that is pressing on you.
Opening the Space between the Match and the Fuse
The problem with impatience is that it usually takes only a split second for its first glowing embers to ignite into flames that course through us even before we’ve become aware that they have started up. Impatience snuffs out consciousness, and before I even know it’s happening, I’m leaning on my horn, or you’re going hoarse yelling at your child or cursing the postman. At this point we don’t even recognize ourselves, and there is little to be done but to try to rein in these feelings enough to minimize any damage we might do.
It’s so much better to be able to catch our impatience as it is arising and to nip it in the bud. To do this we need to recognize the fact that we are getting impatient and then take responsibility for our impatience. This is much easier said than done.
For example, it is common that when a couple is getting ready to go out for a pleasant evening, one of them is always ready before the other. And it is always the same one who is ready first and waiting at the door while the other one has to make one more phone call, or change shoes or tie or dress one last time, or check on something or other. Time passes, impatience grows, and by the time they are both in the car heading out for the evening or to visit friends, they are not even speaking to each other.
The tendency is for the one who is always ready first to become righteous and blame the other one for bad behavior. While it surely isn’t good to be unpunctual and to waste other people’s time, what the impatient person tends to be blind to is that he or she has the personal freedom to choose to call upon the power of patience in that moment, in order to bear the situation without smoldering and then igniting and acting out.
When you find yourself in a situation that is triggering your impatience, instead of giving all your attention and energy to finding fault with the person who is so clearly at fault, you can choose to be patient and take responsibility for your emotional response to that situation. You make the choice of whether you buckle or call on patience to help you bear the burden of the situation. My teacher, Rabbi Perr, calls this awareness and exercise of choice “opening the space between the match and the fuse.”
Morinis, Alan (2011-05-18). Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (pp. 55-62). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.
Tikkun Middot: Family and Adult Activity for Kislev, Cultivating Savlanut/Patience
As a temple community, we are exploring the various ways we can practice mindfulness.These practices can help cultivate the quality of Savlanut, or patience, that we consdier during the month of Kislev.
Here is one daily practice for kids and adults alike, especially useful during this season of flu. When you wash your hands, use your senses to explore how the soap smells, feels, looks. How do you rub the soap around your hands? What do you notice about the suds? Do you scrub, rub or massage, and for how long? Experiment with these different methods. Consider buying different soaps–treat yourself or your kids to fun looking shapes or luxurious emollients.