I am not a patient person. It’s one of my favorite compliments to get though: “Oh, you’re so patient with your students.” Because that means I’ve managed to fake patience SO WELL, that I might actually have treated someone with compassion and kindness rather than beating them senseless, which is what my brain was screaming at me to do.
We’re talking about patience this month with our martial arts students, and we give the definition as “waiting without complaining.” And that makes total sense to most children who, let’s face it, are constantly being asked to wait. Wait in line, wait for lunch, wait for recess, wait for your bus stop, wait for your parent to get home, wait for your turn, wait for the holiday you love the most, wait for your gregarious mother to stop talking with that other person so you can leave and have peace and quiet again.
What’s a little harder to get your head around is the English use of the word patience to mean “I’m not strangling you.” When someone is “losing patience” with me, they aren’t usually “waiting” for me in the usual sense. If someone is waiting on me, other than my son who is referenced in the last sentence of the last paragraph, something is awry in the space/time continuum, because I’m pretty sure I was done first and have been waiting on you forever.
When someone is losing their patience with me, it means that I have pushed their buttons (deliberately or not), misunderstood (deliberately or not), won’t shut my back-talking mouth, aren’t doing what they asked, or am generally being the cross they have to bear. So what does that have to do with “waiting without complaining?”
I had a flash of inspiration about that on Monday. When I am losing my patience with someone or something, it means that I am waiting for them to be/act/say/do what I want, and I am complaining that they are failing to do so. Think that through: I am losing patience with you because I am waiting for you to be how I want you to be, and you aren’t.
Well. Once I got there, I started thinking all kinds of things. Like, how wildly unfair it might be for me to complain (and remember, we complain in all kinds of ways: verbally, non-verbally, physically, aggressively, passive-aggressively, etc.) that you aren’t being how I want you to be right now. If I’m losing my patience in traffic, I must believe that all the other drivers and, in fact, the very laws governing traffic, should bend to my will right now. Now, I am not a person who suffers from a lack of ego, but even I can see the foolishness inherent in that position. If I’m losing my patience with my partner, then I’m taking the stance that this grown-up, smart person I love and who loves me back, should somehow BE DIFFERENT RIGHT NOW, and should do that simply because I want it.
(Before my kids jump in and start saying this means that it’s not right that I lose patience with them, let me point out that it is my JOB to make them into grown-ups, and that means I HAVE to force them into being different than they are all the time, because how they are is children. Or at least it was. As teenagers, they’re getting better and better at adulting, and, I would like to point out, that I have correspondingly begun to lose my patience with them less and less often. So there.)
But when I can hold on to the view that losing patience with another person is really just the expression of my struggle with them having their own personhood, it creates so many more possible ways for me to handle it, or, as we have been teaching in our martial arts classes, it gives me a lot more tools with which to practice patience.
Like empathy. Because when I am convinced that you should be doing something my way, it is useful to remember that you are equally convinced that you should be doing it the way you are doing it. You aren’t choosing to do it for the sole purpose of defying my will — you believe in your way just as strongly as I believe in mine. If I can understand or imagine the situation from your perspective, then I might be able to adjust my expectations, or present my alternative to you in a more effective way, or be able to drop my need to make you change, because I can see how your way is just as good as mine.
Or helping. If you can’t do or be or say what I want right now, then maybe it is because you have other things going on that are more important or more pressing or that you care about more. If you can’t listen to my super-exciting story about the amazing idea I had in the shower this morning because you are busy cooking for three teenage boys, then maybe instead of rolling my eyes and stomping out of the room in irritation, I can jump in and help feed the beasts so you can listen and admire my genius.
Or taking time out. Because sometimes, you’re not going to do what I want regardless of anything I do or say. And I need to step away and breathe, or count to 1000, or whatever I need to do to calm down and remember that I am not the queen of the universe who makes things happen by her force of will. As teachers, this is also the way that we give students the time they need to learn and practice and get better at what we’re trying to teach. It is wrong to expect that students “get it,” simply because we are tired of them not “getting it.” We need to take the time out, and give them all the time they need. They’re trying like hell, and we owe them all the patience in the world.