Morning meditation: On the virtues of patience

What is a morning meditation? To help me build a habit of daily writing, I’m publishing a few thoughts here every morning about ideas that interest and inspire me, mostly drawn from ordinary life. I hope you enjoy them.

I’ve always hated the phrase, “Patience is a virtue.” I still do. It’s the sort of thing you’d tell a fussy child when you want her to sit down, sit still and behave. I laughed out loud when I found this definition from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911:

Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

That said, I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation with a philosophically-minded dear friend on the subject of patience. He persuaded me that patience does indeed have a kind of virtue, one that doesn’t lend itself to pithy platitudes but exists all the same.

Sometimes when exploring the qualities of a word, I find it fun and helpful to research its etymology, the better to understand the origins of its modern definition. In the case of patience, Etym Online says:

Directly from Latin patientia “patience, endurance, submission,” also “indulgence, leniency; humility; submissiveness; submission to lust;” literally “quality of suffering.” It is an abstract noun formed from the adjective patientem (nominative patiens) “bearing, supporting; suffering, enduring, permitting; tolerant,” but also “firm, unyielding, hard,” used of persons as well as of navigable rivers, present participle of pati “to endure, undergo, experience,” which is of uncertain origin.

I was delighted to learn that the Latin root patientum applies to both persons and navigable rivers. What is patience if not navigating the ever-changing rivers of our own lives with all their twists and turns? The passage of time cannot be forced.

As happens so often these days, I find gardening to be a helpful analogy. You can set the optimal conditions for a seed to grow, care for it and make small adjustments, but there’s really only so much you can do. The process of sprouting unfolds according to its own timeline. It is not something that can be rushed. Indeed if you rush it, you ruin it. But if you tend it patiently, you can help it become more richly and beautifully what it is.

And there’s something quite lovely about that, because it suggests that the very act of practicing patience itself can bring forth new possibility and potential. In practicing patience, we do not merely wait for events to unfold. We actively participate in their unfolding.

Patience also, therefore, contains an element of faith. I don’t necessarily mean religious faith, though it can take that form. I mean that patience calls on us to do what we can — to participate in the unfolding of a given event as best we can—and to have faith that it will, in fact, unfold and begin to actualize.

That, I believe, is the crux of what makes patience so hard, at least for me, because contrary to what pop televangelists might have us believe, faith is not certainty. Faith contains risk and doubt as well as hope and possibility. And therefore courage, as well.