Patience as instruction

Patience is one of those funny things that is always inversely affected by your own sense of urgency. The more urgent your task, the less patience you can generally muster.

But it’s also one of those things that can be cultivated. It’s hard, which is why people say that patience is a virtue. If it’s otherworldly, then there is less obligation to attempt to achieve it.

When I was in seventh grade, one of our teachers told us “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I can’t remember why now, and it doesn’t matter. I do remember that it made me feel badly about myself, and a good, I suppose, outcome was that I took care to examine my participation in solution-making.

But looking back now, all I see is bullying. To essentially tell someone (or a class of students) that if they are not contributing in a manner of your choosing that they are a nuisance or a hazard is irresponsible and lazy. When I hear someone say that now, all I can really think is, “well, eff you too.” It’s the worst kind of bullying; it masquerades as an insight, as if it is helpful or instructive. It’s none of those things. It’s not even true.

Sometimes drawing out the best in someone, helping them become independent and actively willing to contribute to a particular goal or aspiration, is hard. It takes patience. And, taking the time to get to know someone’s strengths and weaknesses, so as to better understand if this goal or aspiration is best aligned with who they really are, is a long process. It’s an exercise in patience. The more help you need, the more care you must exercise in finding your contributors.

Patience, as a practice, can seem to be caught in a closed, frustrating loop. To practice patience you need patience. But practice you must.

Like creativity, practice is one of those things you have to develop. You may have an inborn ability to just be chill about stuff, but even so, genuine patience is not an exercise in not caring about things. It means caring about a situation and the outcome enough to control your actions – even when it feels like non-action.

In grad school, a professor was preparing us to teach our classes solo. He told us, “After you ask a question, wait at least 10 seconds in silence. It feels like a long time, but it take them at least that long to get the courage to start speaking up.” The first time, those ten seconds felt awkwardly long. I stood there staring at the students, and they avoided staring back. Then someone tendered an answer, phrased as a question (as freshmen so often do, so as to not be caught in the wrong too badly). And we were rolling. The next time, the students knew it was ok to answer, and I knew the ten seconds would pass. Now, I see a lot of value in just waiting other people out. There are times it can be very instructive to patiently wait. Silence can make people nervous, and they would rather fill the void. I have found that I can find out more about what someone is asking of me (particularly at work) if I just wait it out. They may use terminology that isn’t quite right, and seem to be asking one thing, but after a little bit of waiting, they say something that clarifies better than if I had asked questions myself – because I wouldn’t have known what their true intent was. It sounds vaguely nefarious, but it’s usually just a method of saving a few minutes or a few emails of talking in circles until someone manages to break through the clutter and get the heart of the matter. But that time adds up.

The twins benefit from my patience, too. Or, I benefit, which means they benefit. They are learning the world new. They don’t know the words for things yet. They point and they learn. They will be a year old next week, and they are signing pretty consistently, devouring new concepts and teaching us how they see the world by applying signs or trying a toy in a new way. When we are patient with them, letting them use a toy “wrong,” we see more about how else a toy can be played with and what other creative things can be done with it. Patience, in this case, fosters creativity. As I have noted elsewhere, Eleanor is not as patient as Henry, but she is just as creative, so I can see her working on being patient. She wants to play with a toy in a certain way, but she can’t figure it out. Sometimes she quits for a while and comes back, other times she tries harder for a few minutes. She sees patience modeled, and she practices it. She is also determined – when she has an idea she sees it through.


 “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

This is aggressive and accusatory. I’m not sure I want to browbeat and shame people into doing what I think (ahem, POLITICS). In fact, I know I don’t. My dad has always sort of lived the idea that if you want to complain, you should have an idea for a solution to proffer in exchange. Complaining just for the sake of complaining generally isn’t helpful. Complaint as instruction is better; using dissatisfaction to find new solutions is better yet. Again, patience is paramount. It’s hard to hear complaints. It’s easier when you have your mind set to receive criticism as areas for improvement – concrete areas you can work on. Modeling your own complaints within that frame makes giving criticism easier and makes your criticism more valuable. Now, you may not know enough about the problem to offer a solution – and in fact that may often be the case – and that’s ok. Offering candid, reasoned feedback – even if it’s not complimentary – is actually very helpful. Sure, you’re not offering up a solution, but you’re still helping to shape the eventual solution. It takes patience to go from “I hate it! You suck!” to “This doesn’t work for me because I’m allergic to walnuts, so this is actually death pie, to me.” In fact, including a “because” in any complaint is probably a pretty good idea (if I do say so myself).

“If you’re not part of the solution, it’s because I’m not trying hard enough to understand you.”


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