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“If there is a problem, I have to fix it—right away! I have no patience for this!”
Although we all agree that patience is a virtue, the admission of impatience is strangely considered sexy in our society. Why? Because it translates directly into: “I am a doer, I am powerful, and I am efficient. I am in control.”
Imagine your boss calls you in to talk about a problem, and you propose the following strategy: “Don’t worry, boss! I’ve got this. I am really patient—and I will wait for this to…unfold!”
Answering like this might mean it’s the last question you’re ever asked in this company, right?
What a pity! It may have been the only right answer for the situation, but offering time and space for development to take its course is just not part of our Western culture.
We are trained to take charge, work hard, be on top of it, manage, organise, strategise, plan, and do, do, do—during the week—and if the weekends are not filled with office work as well, we find other places to keep the machine running, like the gym or the bed. It’s all about performance.
No wonder people are burning out, getting depressed, and can’t sustain their significant relationships.
Our lives are out of balance; we’ve lost the sensitivity and respect for life’s inherent rhythms. We’ve lost trust that without our active interference, things might actually work themselves out perfectly.
What we need requires a quality that is largely underdeveloped nowadays, and sometimes even missing entirely:
While living in Africa, I spent two years training with 12 African colleagues, and I was the only European member. They were all well-educated, mature people. We grew quite close during those years, sharing our experiences on a substantial level.
On our last day, we did a little exercise that allowed us to give and get confidential feedback simply by completing the following two sentences: “Your special gift is…” and “The gift I wish for you is…”
I could not believe what I found when I opened my paper: 5 out of 12 peers thought I would be happier with more…patience! I doubt the outcome would have been the same with a Western group, but my African colleagues saw this very clearly.
Up until that point, patience was something that was unattractive, and even boring to me. I didn’t consider it worthy of my attention. The term itself made me feel antsy.
But the deeper I looked, the more fascinated I became. What a complex quality patience actually is!
In order to be patient, we need to trust in the course of life. In order to be patient, we need to have an inner strength and the ability to control our fears and anxieties when we encounter a problematic situation. In order to be patient, we need the wisdom to know when it’s time to wait, and when to become active. In order to be patient, we need to understand that it’s not all about us—that we have to respect the dynamic of life’s own processes, or other people’s timing. In order to be patient, we need courage.
Trust, inner strength, wisdom, humility, and courage. That’s quite a powerful mix! All of these qualities are fruits of maturation, and most of them are hardly reflected in the culture of our fast-paced society.
It’s scary when there isn’t anything we can do when things are getting tough. Doing gives us the illusion that we are taking responsibility and that we are in charge. Having to wait, on the other hand, leaves us with a sense of helplessness. However, to be active—when waiting is the best course—is to violate the process.
I have experienced this painful reality with my youngest son. After two easy kids, I was not prepared for the challenges of a resistant child. It all started with him being overwhelmed from changes of all kinds, and not wanting to go to school. Each morning, I’d make him go anyway. And the more I pressured him, the more he resisted.
This awful game tarnished our relationship for a long time, and much too late did I realise that all he needed was for me to back off for once and allow him to take a break. I’d be respecting his process and trusting that he would then go out of his own motivation.
I was too scared to be patient. I had no space to offer.
I pushed and pulled, I planned and taught, and I went on overdrive…and he responded with equal power, demonstrating that his freedom remained his. And he won.
In order for us to heal, I had to let go, and I mean really let go—and honour his path, his pace, and his choices. The most painful thing for me to face was that despite my best intentions and efforts, I greatly contributed to my son’s suffering simply because I lacked patience.
I’ve learned my lesson…well, some of it; I know now that I have to stop the pointless head banging—because I so badly want to “do something about this”—once I have hit a wall of helplessness. The only outcome would just be more of the same: desperate fights, crippling anxiety attacks, and an overwhelming feeling of responsibility.
“Can you hold this?”
That’s the key question patience asks in moments like this. “Can you hold the tension of this unresolved situation that just doesn’t have a solution quite yet? Can you hold it without disturbing the delicate process with pushy interventions?”
To retreat respectfully and hold the space for things to unfold—while keeping the vision of a brighter future alive—that’s the art of patience, a power that is as mighty as it is gentle.
“Take a break and share your responsibility with life itself,” so its invitation goes.
All you need to do is wait.
“I beg you, to have patience
with everything unresolved in your heart
and to try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language.
Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually,
without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet