Patience as a Form of Resistance

"We may discover that it is the slowness itself that becomes the very feature that curiously makes who we become or what we create all the more beautiful, tender and precious." by Dr. Felicia Wu Song

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow. Exactly what each seed is waiting for is known only to the seed. Some unique trigger combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its one and only chance to grow. In the right place, under the right conditions, it can finally stretch out into what it is supposed to be. 

A seed knows how to wait. I want to be more like a seed. I want to get better at knowing how to be content in the waiting. I want to get better at trusting that I’ll know when it’s the right time to take the chance; when I’ll finally stretch out into what I’m supposed to be. I want to get better at being patient. 

Unfortunately, there is little in my technology-driven life that helps me be more patient. Instead, when I let myself drift along the standard currents of my every day, I am swept along in a fever dream of proliferating emails, rapid texts and endless posts prodding my attention and demanding my responses. In this age of permanent connectivity, we are ever-present to our devices and they are ever-ready for our touch. And in our longings to abide in the security blankets of our digital goods, we have let ourselves become convinced that we now have the chance—perhaps even the responsibility—to achieve mastery over time. No longer do we have to “waste” time or feel bored by having it drag out interminably. At the checkout line, at the doctor’s office, on public transportation or at any moment we have before our next commitment, time is something that we can now fill with perpetual productivity or pleasure. Indeed, most of my digital interfaces train me to believe there is no point in even asking the question, “Why wait?” Because the answer is a given: waiting is for losers. 

We never have to wait for anything anymore—we can tap through our social media feeds, check on our loved ones or giggle at YouTube videos whenever we wish. Few barriers now exist between an impulse and a way to satisfy that impulse. We can shop, rant, connect, be entertained, work, engage in fantasies, find information, play—whenever and wherever we want. Convenient, efficient, instantaneous—these features of our devices and platforms help us transcend the limitations of time and space and fast-track our pursuit of one of the most lauded virtues of our contemporary culture: time management. 

Since the introduction of time management on the factory floor during the late 19th century, it has moved beyond the parameters of the workplace and become a taken-for-granted guide and measure of the modern well-lived life. I remember purchasing a Franklin Covey day planner in the mid 1990s in preparation for my first job right after college. Every day, multiple times a day, I diligently recorded and tracked appointments, meetings and tasks on its pages. It encouraged me to set weekly, monthly and yearly goals. Though “adulting” wasn’t a term back then, I certainly felt that my planner was making me more mature and responsible. I trusted that it would help me become someone who was organized, efficient and capable of checking things off her to-do list. And that it did.

For years, I faithfully trained in the art of time management—efficiently striving to meet deadlines and show up on time. But the unintended consequences of this life orientation began to subtly manifest and distort my sense of reality. I started thinking of my days as if they were a game of Tetris: any empty space on the page needed to be filled with something. My worth was getting tied to how many things I’d accomplish and my existence was becoming reduced to trying to check off items on my to-do list. Ultimately, my planning routines trained me to presume that time was a reality that could always be managed and controlled. I got used to thinking that if I could simply get the right pieces lined up, the positive outcome or goal I desired would obviously result. 

My day planner failed to teach me a few key truths about being human and about the nature of time. It did not train me to understand that I am not a machine, but a living organism with given rhythms and limitations. It did not train me to understand time as something I get to inhabit rather than something I get to manipulate. It did not teach me that, in the things that really matter, time is a flow that is bigger than my reach and will. Fast forward 30 years into our contemporary digital landscape of productivity apps, zero inbox aspirations and a mountain of endless digital content vying for our attention, and these truths are harder than ever to realize.

What time management does teach us is the truth that anything that is worthwhile takes time. A lot of it. A woman needs more than nine months to grow and deliver a child. A friendship takes days, weeks and months to steadily grow and establish into something firm and trustworthy. The smallest scratch or paper cut can take days to heal; a bigger wound much longer. Grief that follows loss can snake down the winding road of months and years to work its way to and through those innermost parts of our being. Fully engaging life takes time. Fully engaging death takes time. Letting ourselves be human takes time. 

For much of my life, I’ve taken the saying “patience is a virtue” to suggest that patience is akin to a gourmet cream cheese frosting or fancy leather seats in a car. It’s an ethical luxury good to be attained by the wise sages or exhibited by a good and moral person, so I should strive to be patient, too. These days, I’ve come to realize that these are unfortunate conclusions to have made about the nature of patience because they divert me away from seeing patience as a way of being that can actually aid me in living within the scope of our human condition. What if I were to believe that patience is not a portal to the exceptional or moral life, but the pathway to actually decreasing my suffering because I’m actually living aligned with the parameters of reality? 

You see, the main problem with all of our minor but persistent online experiences of instant gratification and efficiencies is not that they are inclined to make us petulant or shallow people. Rather, the main problem is that they create an environment that never trains us to confront the comparatively uncontrollable time flows of significant human experiences, like healing from heartbreak, mending a ruptured friendship or building a home in a new place among new people. 

Cultivating relationships, love, interiority—these fundamental aspects of being human are often painstakingly slow moving but vibrant realities. And while the slowness itself can be uncomfortable, even painful in its own way, there may be some wisdom in accepting the natural tempos of these processes. Instead of seeing slowness and inefficiencies as enemies or hindrances to circumvent, we may discover that it is the slowness itself that becomes the very feature that curiously makes who we become or what we create all the more beautiful, tender and precious. Indeed, if we reflect on why homecooked meals, hand-knit socks, penned letters, complex sets of braids or carefully tended campfires possess a special aura, we know that it is the time poured into the act of love and intention that make those beautiful things special and true. 

Sometimes in life, we will be forced to wait. It is simply how the universe and the ways of the heart operate. It is not something that we can “manage” or control. But how much we suffer in that waiting may be up to us. It may be dependent on how much we have cultivated the art of knowing how to wait and be content in the waiting—that is patience. As Richard Rohr writes, “We must agree to live without resolution, at least for a while. This is very difficult for most people, largely because we have not been taught how to do this mentally or emotionally. We didn’t know we could—or even should. As Paul seems to say (and I paraphrase), hope would not be the virtue that it is if it led us to quick closure and we did not have to ‘wait for it with patience’ (Romans 8:24-25).” 

In the ordinary times, when we are not obviously in a season of healing and new life, or bearing the ache of grief and loss, we must train in how to wait contentedly. How do we do this? How do we resist the unintended soul formation of our technologically-enabled world of convenience, ease and pleasure? How do we resist the distorting allure of time management tools that drive us to value efficiency and productivity as the measure of all that is good and worthwhile? The Christian contemplative tradition invites followers of Christ to develop practices that teach us how to pray and be present, to be non-possessive of the time and reality we inhabit and to trust that God is in solidarity with us in the midst of it all, breathing life and salvation into every moment.

Illustration by Janie Hao

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