Things take time, and things go wrong. For some things, we must wait (like next Christmas). Even those things that are comparatively in our control—unlike how far away Christmas is, or how close we are to getting home—often require patience if we are to do them well.
Joe Kupfer defines patience as “the disposition to accept delays in satisfying our desires—delays that are warranted by circumstances or the desires themselves” (265). He then adds that, “patience is not just waiting, but waiting easily without agitation.” But I’m not sure that waiting is the right word in all cases.
Certainly, I can wait in line patiently or with anger or anxiety. I can wait patiently for my daughter to put on her shoes in the morning, or I can yell at her. But there are other things I do, which I think of as requiring patience, where waiting doesn’t seem to be the whole of it. Writing an essay (or story, etc.) would seem to be like this. I have to develop my thoughts, write, revise, read more, rethink, write, revise, show what I have to someone else, and so on. Certainly, waiting can be involved here. I should wait to submit my essay until I am satisfied with the product. (I’m not always good about this.) But it seems like there is something else here, which I would say takes patience, which is part of the process of crafting the essay. Maybe what seems wrong in Kupfer’s definition is the notion of “delays.” Certainly, I can experience setbacks in writing. But the process of writing itself is not something that delays the final product. Perhaps the slowness of my thoughts delays my progress, but that seems wrong. The pace of my thoughts is the pace of my thoughts. Perhaps I have to wait out an episode of writer’s block. But even when the words are flowing, there is a sense in which I have to take my time. (And this is truer of editing.) It’s not that I have to accept a delay in the emergence of a final draft; rather, I have to accept that writing a good essay takes time. It also requires focus; a person who is easily distracted won’t be able to see the project to its completion. And I associate that focused attention to the task with patience. (I don’t know if it’s patience that enables the focused attention, or the ability to focus that makes patience possible…)
Kupfer alludes to what I would call “patience in process” (as opposed to mere patient waiting, as in a check-out line) in his opening example of a young boy who rushes through the construction of a model airplane. But Kupfer then focuses on features of the activity such as waiting for the glue to dry on one part before moving onto the next step. Here, I think, he misses something important. Applying the glue properly or painting the wings evenly may also take patience, and here it’s not like one is waiting for something to happen. One is in the midst of doing something, which must be done carefully, slowly, and mindfully—if it is to be done well. Kupfer realizes that impatience in such activities ironically leads to a failure to achieve what we want, since the final result will be shoddy. But when he talks about how patience can be fostered by understanding the time various activities take, he still focuses on cases where one isn’t quite fully engaged, but rather where one is waiting for the glue to dry, or the customer service representative to come on the line after putting you on hold, and so on.
Those examples might make it a bit too easy to think that understanding cures everything, or nearly does. But if we tend to hurry things along or get easily distracted, then I’m not quite sure those are character traits that are fixed by more facts. I may know that it’s going to take all day to clean the side of the house, but still find myself rushing along, not scrubbing the siding as diligently as I might, not able to focus on doing it well. This needn’t be because I don’t really care, but rather because I get anxious when faced with an activity that seems, to me, slow in the doing. And when I find myself getting hurried like that, I find myself thinking that I need to be more patient, and this is part of what I think is involved in focusing on the task at hand. It’s not that I need to remind myself that doing it correctly takes time, but rather that I need to refocus and remind myself to slow down.
But maybe what I need here is a more subtle idea about what it means to wait. Perhaps I am waiting on myself to finish one part of the job before I move onto the next? (But then which me is it that moves on? I can wait for my arm to heal before I try playing softball again. But I'm less sure about waiting on myself to finish one thought before moving onto the next one. Maybe if it's a physical activity, I'm waiting on my body to do one thing before I will it to do another. But that's a wee bit too Cartesian for me...at least, I don't quite see how to separate going slow and being focused and mindful from whatever it is that we might call waiting here.)