Had some of the less successful dualists of Europe three centuries ago been less impetuous, they might have a lived a longer life. The role of men acting as their seconds was to urge them to have some patience in resolving their dispute and to wait a while longer before starting the violence. Often such was the passion for defending ‘honour’, the good advice was to no avail.
We no longer fight duels. But how many of us could find more patience when stuck in a traffic jam, confronted by a rude customer we should be serving, or being faced with delay due to a queue going through airport security? We do tend to want immediate pleasure and get tense waiting for appetite to be satisfied, for boredom to be reduced, or for any frustrated desire to be met.
Psychologists have known for a long time about the power of ‘immediacy of reward’. When given a choice, all animals, humans included, are inclined to favour short term rewards over long term rewards even when the latter involve greater benefits. We often want something now and having it later is no good.
The effects of not having patience can be increased heart rate and bodily tension and of course the accumulative result is mental stress. If you get upset when things don’t work out for you straight away then getting angry can make the situation worse. How then can you learn to calmly endure hardship? How to find a way to wait longer for what you want without blowing a fuse?
Realistic expectations and patience
Studies have found that these days online users are no longer patient after as little as two seconds while waiting for a video to start playing. Users who are connected to the internet at faster speeds have less patience than their counterparts connected at slower speeds. This suggests a link between patience and the expectation of when we are likely to get what we want.
We assume things and people ought to behave the way we think they should behave. That person at the head of the queue should not be engaging in small talk with the cashier. But people often don’t live up to our expectations.
If we are unrealistically optimistic in when we expect something then we are more likely to feel frustrated and so less likely to remain calm. Conversely, if we were to have lower expectations then perhaps we would be more patient whilst waiting. It helps to expect occasional delay, difficulty, or annoyance in life.
Distraction and a patience
It also helps to be get things into perspective. For example when eating alone at a restaurant and waiting for longer than usual for food to arrive, your mind may be focused on the appearance of the waiter. If so you are probably not feeling patience. You could try to distract yourself with something else to think about that actively engages your mind. For example noticing anything that is interesting, pleasing or good in the situation around you. Or reflecting on something positive and hopeful in your life. Make it something vitally interesting in order to lend it the power to tear yourself away from your preoccupation with what is frustrating you.
Time passes much more quickly when we are creatively absorbed in something and much more slowly when we are not. Thinking about a matter more important than what we are wanting at that moment helps you also to recognise that what you had been waiting for isn’t crucial to your happiness. Is it really the end of the world if you cannot make the beginning of the meeting because of the heavy traffic or the absence of a parking space near your destination? These considerations may help to calm the sense of urgency you felt about obtaining something straight away.
Spirituality and patience
Sleepwalking through life means behaving like a robot in the sense of acting in line with habits, and automatic thoughts. This often results in a lack of patience when things don’t go right. On the other hand a mindfulness practice is to make a conscious choice and effort to pay attention to everything that is going on in consciousness. Is your mind calm or agitated? Is your body relaxed or tensed? This awareness includes recognising any lack of fortitude.
All the faith traditions hold patience as a virtue. In Buddhism, being patient is the ability to control one’s emotions even when being criticized or attacked.
In Judaism patience reflects a contented attitude to life and good sense rather than folly.
In Islam it is believed that patience is part of the natural flow of life – needed for waiting for the harvest. To patiently endure calamity and suffering is to be closer to Allah.
Swedenborg and patience
Spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg has something to say about patience. His view is that with all the frustrations, set backs and hardships of life no-one can find a deep sense of patience in their own strength alone.
However, he writes that we can endure the temporary trials of life with a more patient attitude when we have a deep trust in a higher providence: this is can be thought of as a reliance on a universal spiritual force that has the power and foresight to provide what we need; the priority of this divine providence is said to be to satisfy not so much our immediate needs which often are temporary ones but rather those spiritual needs that we will continue to have in the long term – needs for example for belonging, loving relationship, and meaningful role.
Thus what counts for Swedenborg is our hope and trust in this image of the Divine Source: an image that is lovingly active in providing for us all – if we co-operate in the process. I only hope I can remember to try to open myself to this sphere of contentment when tempted next by impatience.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems