The Need for Patience

Patience is a virtue.People usually say this when someone they know is being impatient, or is at least tempted to be. Or perhaps we occassionally say this to ourselves, in times that try our patience. But why is patience a virtue? There is a lot to say about this, but one reason that patience is a virtue is that it is a means of connecting members of a family and community together in deeper ways.

I recently finished a book by David Baily Harned, Patience: How We Wait Upon the World, and am in the middle of reading Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. Both of these books touch on the need for patience in our social relationships. Harned has much of value to say about patience; I was particularly struck by the following passage:

But displaced persons are not merely the flotsam and jetsam carried by the tides of pestilence, famine, and war in countries far removed from our own. They walk the streets in countless towns and cities, live in our neighborhoods, and sometimes dwell in our own homes…When a parent is habitually impatient with a child, when children are constantly impatient with aged and infirm parents, when people are dismissive of their colleagues and uncaring of their subordinates, when neighbors are indifferent to the plight of the lonely and handicapped who live on their street–in these and innumerable ways we create displaced persons in a tranquil and affluent land (p. 144).

The claim that our impatience, if it is habitual, can displace people in this way seems right to me. This is the case as we deal with children and the elderly. It strikes me that as a society we are impatient with the aged, when we are behind them in traffic, waiting for them to finish their transaction at the supermarket line, and in a variety of other circumstances. Perhaps now that I’m middle-aged, I am more sensitive to this because what used to seem far off on the horizon—old age—does not seem quite so far off anymore and I don’t want to be pushed to the margins or the target of anger born from impatience. More importantly, as I come to appreciate in deeper ways the value of each individual human being, I see that we tend to disregard it in our dealings with the old and the very young.

How does Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, relate to this? There are many ways, but one consistent theme in the book is the structure and functioning of the community in which the book takes place. Everyone knows everyone, and secrets are hard to keep. But there is a sense of obligation to one another. When a farmer is sick at harvest time the men in the town pick up the slack for him. The women care for each other, and watch out for people in the community to ensure that their needs are met. The bonds of community are frayed in many ways by the flaws of the people in it, but in some sense it is in part their patience with one another that helps to hold it all together.

Community of this type is fading in many ways due to technology, individualism, and a general lack of planting ourselves in one place for life. We have to be more intentional about forming such communities given some of the additional challenges we face. However, one way to accomplish this is to seek to cultivate and display patience with ourselves, those we share a home with, and those we encounter as we go about our days in whatever places we find ourselves.




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