I used to think of myself as a patient person.
I mean, they used to praise me for my patience when I was a kid. I sat nicely with my hands folded and waited my turn; I never pushed in lines, didn’t squirm and leap out of my seat when I had the answer, and didn’t mind long waits because I was perfectly content to sit and daydream. (Except if I was hungry. Then I was a nightmare. But I digress.)
In recent years, however, it has come to my attention that I have a lot of difficulty waiting for certain things. I wince when I read some of the things I wrote in my journal about my agent quest when I was a teenager; not only was I extremely preoccupied with it and frustrated at how long it took agents to get back to me, I nudged them without shame when they failed to respond to requests within a month or so. (Protip: Don’t do this. Wait at least 3-4 months before nudging unless they specified a different turnaround or you have important news to share with them.)
This lack of patience is a source of a great deal of suffering for me in my adult life. I count the days, and they can be agony, even for something relatively non-momentous like an email from a friend (you know who you are 😛 ), and even if the waiting period is completely reasonable. It’s embarrassing, really. I am ashamed to admit it.
Part of it might be cultural. I became an adult in a country where life is extremely fast-paced and everything that needs to be done needs to be done IMMEDIATELY AND PREFERABLY YESTERDAY BECAUSE IRAN IS GOING NUCLEAR AND WHO KNOWS HOW MUCH TIME WE HAVE LEFT ON THIS PLANET, DANIELLA, SO I’D APPRECIATE IF YOU COULD GET THAT TRANSLATION IN MY INBOX ASAP. (…)
But even those of you who live in more, ahem, relaxed cultures also live in a world of instant gratification, blah blah blah, I’m sure you’ve heard these lectures before and your eyes are glazing over already. Why? Because “patience is a virtue,” and therefore, impatience is a vice, a character flaw, a moral failing. And those damn smartphones and fast-food joints are turning us all into impatient philistines, etc., etc., get off my lawn.
Hold the Marshmallows
You’ve probably heard of the “marshmallow test”. You know, the one where they handed a kid a marshmallow and then told them they could have another one if they waited 10 minutes before eating it? The one that claimed to associate the ability to delay gratification with success later in life?
There is no doubt in my mind that I would have passed that test with flying colors. I was that kind of kid. But here’s the thing: marshmallows were never particularly important to me.
Approval, on the other hand, was.
The adults in my life were always surprised and maybe a little concerned about how easygoing I was when my then-domineering older sister always got the first and best pick when we were both given something. I’m not sure they understood that getting the more desirable Barbie or the better flavor of lollipop was completely trivial to me, whereas my sister being happy with me was paramount, and I was willing to sacrifice a great deal for it.
If the test had involved sitting alone in a room with a marshmallow and not eating it, and then not getting any kind of reward at all, I still would have “passed”. Because the reward would have been passing the test, i.e., approval from whatever adult had given me the instructions. And that approval would not have been withheld from me for an instant.
My point is, the patience I was praised for as a kid did not apply universally. It wasn’t an innate virtue. It was about priorities. It’s very easy for me to wait for things that are not so important to me. Much, much harder to wait for things that are.
Can Patience Be Cultivated?
If you Google “how to cultivate patience” you’ll come across a lot of websites dedicated to Buddhist and Zen philosophies. (Guess how I know this. 😛 ) Buddhism famously teaches the concept of “non-attachment”: that is, that all the suffering we feel in life stems from our human tendency to attach ourselves to ideas, feelings, or needs, and that by detaching ourselves from these things, we can achieve inner peace.
Listen, I’m a big fan of mindfulness and I admire much of the wisdom Buddhism has introduced into the world. Non-attachment is one concept, however, that I was never completely on board with. I think it is neither desirable nor entirely possible to completely detach yourself from everything. Recognize that your thoughts, feelings, and ideas are not your essence–sure. But completely disown them? No. The opposite. My religion, Judaism, teaches us that the ideal is to fully engage with the world, in all its turmoil. Our most respected spiritual leaders and role models don’t isolate themselves on mountaintops; they are fully involved in the community, actively working and fighting for justice, equality, education. And the research and teachings of Brené Brown, which are woven into the foundations of the philosophy of this blog, are all about owning your story, leaning into discomfort, and facing your feelings to live a wholehearted, fulfilling life.
Accordingly, I found most of the articles on this topic very unsatisfactory. The underlying message is that in order to be more patient you have to stop caring so much about stuff.
…Uh-uh. That is not how we roll here on the Rejection Survival Guide.
What Is Patience Anyway?
The modern Hebrew word for patience is savlanut, and people learning the language often get it confused with another, almost identical word: sovlanut, or “tolerance”. Both of these words come from the same root: ס.ב.ל., s.v.l., which means “suffering”.
Patience is the ability to tolerate the suffering of waiting.
The fact that we feel that suffering is not a character flaw or failing. One might say that impatience is an emotion. It is the pain we feel when we want something very much, something we expect or hope to receive sometime in the future, but can’t have yet.
Just like jealousy, it is a very uncomfortable feeling, and is frowned upon in our culture. But also like jealousy, it is a completely natural and normal emotional response to the situation. It is not good or bad. It just is. And it’s only when we act on our impatience in a way that is hurtful to others that it becomes a moral failing.
Therefore, the only way to really “cultivate patience”–in my opinion–is to tend to, and process, your impatience.
We do that by addressing it head-on. We ask ourselves:
- What is the thing I want that I can’t have yet? (i.e., a response to my submission.)
- What am I feeling about the fact that I can’t have it yet? (i.e., anxious about what it means, angry that the person failed to live up to their time commitment, etc.)
- What is the underlying thing I really want that that thing represents to me? (i.e., moving forward in my career, approval, acknowledgement, validation, respect.)
- Why is that so important to me? What need do I have that this thing would meet? (i.e. I need to know that my life is worth something; I need to feel respected, seen, and heard.)
- Is there another way I can meet that need without relying on somebody else’s actions? (i.e., make a list of worthwhile things I’ve done in my life in general and with my writing in particular; cultivate self-respect; do other things to move my career forward.)
Oftentimes, just recognizing the underlying need or desire is enough to help you start moving past your pain.
But don’t forget: if you struggle with impatience, that is not a moral failing. It’s only a moral failing if you act on your impatience in a way that is intrusive or hurtful to others.
When and How to Act on Impatience
That isn’t to say we should never act on our impatience.
The point is that we should never act out of impatience.
That is, once we have processed our impatience, we can look at the situation practically and decide if intervention on our part is possible and/or necessary.
Sometimes it is both possible and a good idea to take action (as long as it’s with kindness and compassion).
Sometimes, painful as it is, waiting and trusting the universe is the best course of action.
Being a creative person trying to get your work into the world sometimes feels like a constant battle between these two options. Should I be more proactive? Should I submit more? Should I say yes to anything and everything in hopes that it’ll lead me somewhere? Or should I wait and see? Should I weigh my options more carefully? Should I let go and let God?
I don’t have answers for you. I don’t even have answers for me. Lately I’ve been feeling that the universe has been pulling me more in the direction of practicing patience–observing the advantages of pulling back and seeing where things go, and that’s why I’m writing this post. Do you have any insight on how to figure out when to choose action and when to choose patience? I’d love to hear.