When I was growing up in a little village in Kerala state, South India, my grandmother taught me more through her life than through words, but when anyone in the family needed a gentle correction, she always had a proverb ready. I often heard her repeat the beautiful phrase: “Patience is the ornament of the brave.” Patience is the real badge of courage; it is equally the mark of love.
Being a good teacher takes patience; being a good doctor also takes patience. In fact, if you want to excel in anything, master any skill, patience is an asset. And if you want to love – your children, your parents, your partner, your colleagues – patience is an absolute necessity. You may be dashing, glamorous, fascinating, and alluring; you may be tall, dark, and handsome; lissome and lovely – or whatever the current fancy may be. But without patience, you cannot be called a great lover; it would be a contradiction in terms.
“Well,” most of us say, “I guess that leaves me out. Patience has never been my strong suit.” Very, very few of us are born patient, especially today. There almost seems a conspiracy in our modern civilization to counsel just the opposite: be impatient, be angry, and “look out for number one.” But what is life without patience? What use is money if we live in exasperation with those we love, if we cannot stand to live with our own family? What good is it to have your picture on the cover of Time if you cannot be patient with yourself?
“Patience is the ornament of the brave.” What a wonderful idea! Not swords or guns or medals, but patience. We seldom realize what power there is in patience. All the energy consumed in exploding against others, in retaliating, in unkind words, in the anger that brings grief to others and ulcers to ourselves all that energy can be harnessed as positive, creative power, simply by learning patience.
Patience Comes with Practice
After I give a talk, people sometimes come up to me and say, “But you don’t know the atmosphere in my home! You haven’t met my office mates!”
I hasten to assure them, “You don’t have to give me the details. I wasn’t raised in a cave.” I grew up in a large extended family, where we couldn’t escape rubbing shoulders with one another at every turn. Later I worked on campuses with thousands of students and attended hundreds of meetings where faculty members from all departments often disagreed, sometimes with passionate conviction. In every context there can be people who are difficult every bit as difficult as we ourselves can be at times. Wherever we turn in life, we are liable to run into challenging predicaments.
Being a good teacher takes patience; being a good doctor also takes patience. In fact, if you want to excel in anything, master any skill, patience is an asset.
When I was teaching on university campuses, however, I was also practicing meditation and trying to use the teachings of the mystics in my daily life. Gradually I learned to cease looking upon challenges as difficulties and began to see tense situations as opportunities to put my growing love to use. We can do this everywhere; the family context is perfect.
In every family, for example, there is likely to be somebody with a bit of Jonathan Swift in him. Swift, you know, had a sardonic tongue and a rather black sense of humor; he is said to have worn mourning on his birthday. This sort of thing has an inhibiting effect on everyone, and naturally enough, when the Jonathan of our own family enters the room, others may try to make themselves scarce. Not the person who is trying to take love seriously. She learns to come up with a genuine smile and say, “Come in, Jonathan! I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.” To herself, she can add in a whisper, “I need the opportunity to deepen my patience.”
This is a daily endeavor, like aerobic exercise. You don’t stop exercising when your heart rate gets up to 85. You say, “My target rate is 120,” and you keep at it until you get there. When your heart is accustomed to 120, you can start aiming for 130, then for 140. Where physical conditioning is concerned, everybody accepts this process.
It is exactly the same process for increasing patience. The resting rate for patience is zero. You say, “I don’t have any patience at all. I blow my stack at the slightest provocation!” I commiserate with such people by patting them on the back and reminding them, “That is where everybody starts.” With practice, when Jonathan goes out of his way to provoke you, you find you can bear it cheerfully for half an hour. With time, you reach the point where you can get through an entire Saturday morning without losing control. From seventhirty until noon, you are so patient that you begin to relish your show of self-mastery. After lunch – wisely, I would say – you make yourself scarce again, because your patience has run dry.
But if you keep at it with the same diligence in every arena of personal affairs, the great day arrives when you can be patient around poor Jonathan throughout the weekend. He does his level best to provoke you, but you say to yourself, “Oh, no, you don’t! Those days are over. Nowadays I can be patience itself.”
“Patience is the ornament of the brave.” What a wonderful idea! Not swords or guns or medals, but patience. We seldom realize what power there is in patience.
Patience in the Family
One obvious place we all desire patience is with those who are not well. Grumbling, complaining, and suffering are part of being sick. It is a privilege to serve those who are in poor health and to put up cheerfully with an irritable remark.
Similarly, with older people. It is good to remember that old age will come to all, and when your body is not able to function well, the slightest effort can bring pain. At such times it is very difficult to be generous. Spiritual awareness teaches us to serve someone in this condition cheerfully and lovingly: it helps them, and it helps us grow as well.
Another place to learn patience is in taking care of small children. Infants, in particular, have no language except crying. They can’t look at their watch and say, “It’s half an hour past my mealtime, and I’m famished,” or take their cereal off the shelf and eat. So they scream. That’s their way of attracting attention, and if the response is not prompt, they scream louder and longer. It’s not very easy to be patient and cheerful with a screaming baby on your hands; but that is just what makes it the perfect opportunity.
Nighttime, of course, is best of all. In India, where babies sometimes do not have a room of their own, nighttime can really be a problem. The baby will be in one corner of your room, the brother and sister in a second corner, a cousin who has come to the city for a job interview may be on the couch. And in the middle of the night your baby starts crying. Perhaps he has a stomach problem; perhaps he has an earache; maybe she just wants to play. After all, a baby doesn’t see the logic of sleeping all night. “Here it is, one o’clock, and I’m wide awake. Why are all these people sleeping?” The little angel starts expressing the feelings of the moment, and everybody in the house gets upset.
At a time like this, we can remember the unity that binds everyone in the family into a whole. This is what spiritual living really means – its whole purpose is to strengthen us so that we can deal successfully with the trials of life, large and small.
There’s No Limit
What makes us impatient? The mystics give a good, scientific answer: acts of impatience, repeated over and over and over. Then how do we make ourselves more patient? By trying to be more patient every day. If we do everything we can every day to stretch our patience, one day it is going to be inexhaustible.
A few days ago, I was in the grocery store watching an exasperated young mother contend with her little one. Hitching a ride on the shopping cart, he seemed determined to throw in all the items advertised on television. Unfortunately, his fancies did not coincide with his mother’s notions of children over meals, to their accounts of school, to what they will be doing on the weekend. This can take some patience, since children often give detailed and even fanciful accounts of their activities, but every minute we spend this way helps build an atmosphere of love that will protect them and us from the inevitable ups and downs of life.