Just a Little Patience

Developing the virtue of patience during a pandemic.

Posted Sep 16, 2020

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

There are so many difficult things about the pandemic. One is thinking and talking about the difficult things brought on by the pandemic! Let's take a look at the virtue of patience, as it might be especially relevant for our lives during this time. Patience can be stretched thin by the circumstances we are facing, but we can also do something about that.

What is patience?

There are many ways to think about patience. Here are some qualities of the patient person:

  • They are able to endure discomfort without complaint.
  • They are slow to anger, and when they are angry, that anger is proportionate to the circumstances.
  • They tend to be less focused on themselves, especially their desires and their needs, and are able to look at the bigger picture.

We can go into a little more detail, and think about several varieties of patience:

  1. Patience with nuisances. People can be annoying or frustrating, as can waiting in line at the store or airport, dealing with the weather, driving over a pothole on your street, and all of the other little inconveniences of life.
  2. Patience with boredom. Sometimes the routine of life can just wear us down, making us restless or even angry.
  3. Patience with significant physical or psychological suffering. This is in some ways the most taxing form of patience. It can be difficult to persevere through emotional turmoil and struggles, physical injuries, illnesses, and incapacitation.

Why Is It Difficult?

In general, patience is difficult for us because of our egocentric predicament. That’s a fancy way of saying that we are primarily aware of and often therefore tend to care more about our own thoughts and feelings. So, like many of the virtues, a primary obstacle to developing patience is our own self-centeredness. Another difficulty is that sometimes complaint is needed and justified, and we can struggle knowing when that’s the case.

But patience can be developed. There are things we can do to cultivate this virtue in our lives.

A Simple Change of Perspective

One strategy that I’ve found to be the most helpful has to do with my perspective. When I see a pain, an inconvenience, or a small or large trial as a chance to practice patience, something often happens inside of me. That change in perspective paves the way for patience. You might be skeptical, but it really does work. From experience, I’ve found that if I’m in a long line at the grocery store, for example, and I say to myself, “This is a chance to practice patience,” I’m often empowered to do just that.

A while back, another guy and I were bumped off a flight. I was behind him in line at the ticketing counter, trying to rebook, and he was furious. He acted like a complete jerk to the airline employee trying to help him. I don’t mean he was just a little short or rude. It was much worse than that. While I am definitely not always patient in these kinds of situations, I was intentional here. As I was kind and easygoing with the airline employee, she pelted me continually with, “Thank you!” as she helped me rebook my flight.

When you are able to be patient, it definitely makes a difference for others, but I’ve found in these situations, it is fun to step outside of the norm, which these days seems to tend toward impatience and rudeness.

Patience, like many other virtues, is countercultural. And it can be enjoyable!

Little Exercises in Patience

There are little things we can do, which on the surface seem kind of strange and even like a waste of time, that nevertheless can help us cultivate patience. In his book, Strength of Will (available free here), E. Boyd Barrett suggests several unnecessary tasks that can help us become more patient:

  • Scatter a number of coins on the floor. Then, pick them up and stack them in a neat pile. Barrett suggests doing this for several days, increasing the number of coins each day.
  • Count out loud, slowly and clearly, for 10 minutes.
  • Scatter a deck of cards, then organize them by number and suit.

I know, it seems silly and pointless. So does going to the gym and running in place on a treadmill for 30 minutes. But we do that to exercise the body and keep it healthy. We can do the same to exercise our character, to keep it strong and healthy. Think of these little exercises as going to the “patience gym." If these don’t seem useful, try to make up your own.

Practice Solitude and Silence

We are generally terrible at being alone and quiet. We might be alone, but when we are, we tend to be plugged into the world through our smartphones and other screens. We passively take in entertainment, tweets, or perhaps get enraged at that person on Facebook who is wrong about everything.

But one thing that can help us develop patience is to set a regular time to simply be alone, with our thoughts, unplugged from everything, in the silence. Even just 15-20 minutes a few times a week can have an enormous benefit. Be alone, be quiet, and do nothing. Yes, nothing. There are many other benefits to this as well. Give it a try.

Questions for Further Reflection and Application

  1. What is one situation where I tend to be impatient? Why does this trigger impatience in me? What can I do to change this habit?
  2. Who is one person that I struggle to be patient with, and how might I change my perspective of them in a way that can help me be more patient?
  3. Who is someone I know that really seems to be a patient person? What is it that makes them so? What might I learn from them about patience?
  4. Which of the three suggestions for developing patience can I try this week? Write down your plan as a way to be intentional about this.