Patience: It's Worth the Wait
In today's fast-paced culture, can patience really still be a virtue? Find out why patience is essential to a well-balanced, successful life and how you can become more patient.
David Shenk loves the speed of the Internet, the instant gratification of email, and the convenience of shopping online. But he also knows that these modern conveniences and the lifestyles they accelerate come at a cost.
"We're packing more into our lives," says Shenk, author of The End of Patience, "and losing patience in the process." In his book, Shenk maintains that "We've managed to compress time to such an extent that we're now painfully aware of every second that we wait for anything."
Too Much Technology
It's not just modems, cell phones, and call waiting driving our inability to wait. It's extended to elevators, shopping malls, the gym, and even gas stations. At least one large Northeast hotel chain has installed Internet news monitors in their elevators. At many fitness centers, you can surf the Net and pedal at the same time. And a Norfolk, Virginia company is manufacturing television monitors that can be positioned at gas station islands, so you can watch the news while you wait for your gas.
In theory, advances in technology should free up time to do other things, but in practice, they tend to perpetuate the need for ever-greater speed. Shenk and others believe that this addiction to convenience can come at too high a cost. When there is no time to wait, there is often no time to think, to connect to other people at deep levels, or to create lasting memories.
"The real danger is the potential vanishing of spirituality," Shenk explains. "It's difficult to feel the richness of being alive when you've got these distracting electronic impulses [interrupting] your thoughts."
Is Patience Still a Virtue?
Patience can be defined in any number of ways, but it boils down to the ability to wait calmly before taking action and/or accept events that cannot be controlled.
"Not everyone has to believe the old aphorism that patience is a virtue," says Joseph Tecce, professor of psychology at Boston College. "But everyone has to realize that patience has a number of rewarding consequences that can enhance happiness in the long term."
Patience Is a Strength
Tecce, who equates patience with self-restraint, explains that people who develop patience give themselves more choices, and therefore more freedom to handle each situation that arises more effectively. "Patiently holding back outbursts when frustrated, afraid, or angry puts people in charge of their decisions and avoids the negative consequences of temperamental outbursts," he explains.
And the negative side effects don't just apply to relationships with others. "If we don't learn to be patient, we are likely to suffer from anxiety and frustration," says Rachel Harris, PhD, author of 20-minute Retreats," which includes a chapter about incorporating patience into daily life. Harris maintains that patience, while not a natural virtue, is a necessary one for emotional and spiritual maturity.
"Having patience shifts our perspective, allowing us to open to what is actually happening in the present moment," she writes.
The Healing Touch of Patience
Experts agree that modern culture, with its emphasis on multi-tasking and control, typically undervalues the importance of patience, which is often perceived as wasted time. They contend that quite the contrary is true.True patience should not be confused with meekness, in which fear or lack of discipline leads to inactivity.
In Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective, the Dalai Lama clarifies the necessity and the difficulty of practicing patience: "...only through patience is one able to overcome the obstacles to compassion... Since patience comes from a certain ability to remain firm and steadfast...one should not see patience as a sign of weakness, but rather as a sign of strength coming from a deep ability to remain steadfast and firm."
In Buddhism, there are different levels of patience, but all of them are reached by ever-expanding attempts at self-control. When a person is truly patient, understanding quickly supplants anger and empowers individuals to remain calm and solve problems more effectively.
Worth the Wait
David Shenk knew he was on track with his message of moderation when he began noticing how really smart, really successful people spent their time.
"They're all making these hard decisions. They're very disciplined," he says. "They spend a huge amount of time thinking carefully."
There are trade-offs, Shenk acknowledges, for limiting the time he spends at his computer and choosing to read a book instead of watching the nightly news. But these are trade-offs he can live with, because they directly enhance his quality of life.
"I think everything we really value in our lives is built on slower things," he maintains.
With deadline pressures and note-filled day planners, where is the time to practice patience?
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Remember to breathe—One of Rachel Harris' mini-retreats focuses on letting go of impatience by taking a deep breath, then letting your expectations out as you exhale.
- Pay attention to details—Harris also encourages other quick retreats. When you make tea, try to purposefully do nothing as you wait for the water to boil. Enjoying the tea and the empty time increases your awareness of patience. Tending to a garden requires patience because the plants' growth can only be appreciated over time.
- Create consequences—Dr. Tecce recommends setting up repercussions for yourself if you slip into impatient behavior. For example, if you've sworn off compulsive swearing, decide on a consequence if you lose your patience and start to swear.
- Eat right and rest—From excessive caffeine to lack of sleep, biological forces can play a part in putting the brakes on your ability to suppress anger, according to Tecce.
- Make the tough choices—Whether it's yoga, putting a time limit on your computer use each day, deciding to print out reading materials instead of reading them online, or turning off the television so you can reconnect with your family, understand the great rewards of setting your own limits, advises Shenk. Allotting time to think, read, and talk requires both patience and discipline, but the resulting pride and happiness make the sacrifices worthwhile.
Incorporating patience into everyday life won't be instantaneous, but isn't that the point?
Last reviewed November 2007 by Theodor B. Rais, MD
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