Lately I’ve been pondering the concept of patience, its true nature and its value in my life (you read that right: value). I’ve always considered myself to be fairly impatient, and my husband to be patient, sort of opposites (complementary ones, I hope). Then the minister at the UU church we occasionally attend gave a sermon about patience and impatience, and I began thinking that maybe there’s more to it than just the “I want what I want” meme.
First, I examined my own supposed impatience. I freely admit that I’m no good at waiting for some things: a wedding, a book publication, mastery of a new musical instrument, my turn at the customer service counter. But I have to give myself credit for some kinds of deep patience. I can deal with small children, even bunches of them at a time, when other adults would be pulling their hair out and looking around for a baseball bat. I’m the same way with the elderly, and the ill and infirm. And I have endless patience with organizing things around the house – filing cabinets, craft supplies, books. So maybe the global label isn’t so accurate.
Then I looked at my husband’s supposed patience, a quality I’ve often envied. Yes, he moves slowly and carefully through the steps of carpentry projects. He will work on a musical composition for months, down to aching details, until it’s just right. But he can’t be bothered to put his tools away after those carpentry projects, or to file paperwork in a way that might allow him to retrieve it when needed later on. So again, the blanket label just doesn’t apply.
All right, if I can’t say that we’re either patient or impatient as an overall personality trait, then what is the nature of this impatience that drives me nuts and makes me feel like I need to go take a class in Being Here Now?
Irony: I got really impatient trying to figure out the nature of impatience.
But eventually I came to a startling conclusion. The true nature of impatience? I think it might be selfishness.
My first thought after that revelation was, “Oh great, another way to bash myself because I’m not perfect.” But upon further consideration, viewing impatience as a form of selfishness has helped me accept it and even, sometimes, short-circuit it. And that makes me feel good.
First of all, impatience-as-selfishness is not a horrible personality flaw, just a normal human characteristic. We’re all selfish to some extent. The human race wouldn’t have survived this long without a certain amount of self-interest. Sometimes, we just have to look after ourselves. It only becomes a problem when that me-first-ness hinders our ability to get things done and enjoy the process.
So I started focusing consciously on impatience when it popped up, which it obligingly did pretty often.
I picked out a new Chopin nocturne to learn on the piano and right away I grew impatient at my inability to play it beautifully the first time through. So I backed away from that grumbling voice in my head and looked at the situation through the lens of selfishness. For every new thing, there’s a learning curve. Why should I magically get to skip that process when no one else does? Immediately, the impatience defused and I was able to enjoy the progression of skill through several days of practice.
I got stuck in heavy traffic on the way home from a friend’s house. I had made sure to leave early enough to miss rush hour, but there I was anyway, idling at a traffic light as it turned red then green then red again, unable to move forward. The impatience monster reared its ugly head, of course. I had made adequate preparation to avoid this situation; why should I be forced to sit on the asphalt and breathe exhaust for ages? I took advantage of the wait to examine the impatience. Yep, selfishness. Sure, I had planned ahead, but I have no control over the rest of the world, not even my part of it. Everyone else on the road that day was sitting there, waiting, just like me. Maybe some of them had planned ahead and left early, too. Why should I get special privileges?
Believe it or not, this whole Impatience-Selfishness Project didn’t make me feel bad about myself, as I had feared it might. Instead, it made me realize that I’m a part of a larger whole. I’m just like everyone else, having to navigate those learning curves and wait in line and answer toddlers’ endless questions and sort the bills. These hurry-up-and-wait situations are something we all share, something that makes us human. No one likes them, but we all have to deal with them. Instead of snarling through the impatience, we can recognize something important:
We’re all in this together.