I'm not a very patient person. I've been aware of this shortcoming for many years but only recently have I made a conscious decision to practice patience as a spiritual discipline. It's a deeply challenging commitment and I feel it pushing me into a whole new level of being. My impatience has lead to poor decisions and missed opportunities. I have hurt myself and those closest to me. Not only that, instead of being fully present and enjoying the moment, I often find myself racing through life like an addict desperate for her next fix.
I'm so caught up in getting things done that I lose the ability to see let alone meet the needs of those around me. I see tasks instead of people and practice efficiency when I could be expressing empathy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my work as a nurse at a long-term care facility. The workload is heavy so we have very little time to spend with any one resident. I find myself avoiding small talk, dismissing needs and rushing residents through their meals and cares. At home I am painfully aware of the extra time it takes to allow my toddler to figure things out for herself. I can do it myself, let me do it! is her everpresent mantra these days and my rebuttals are just as predictable: We're too late. Hurry up. Focus. You're taking too long. Just let me do it!
Even more difficult than the time crunch factor are the inevitable personality conflicts that arise. Learning to have patience with someone who is deliberately mean or manipulative is far more challenging than having patience with someone who is unwittingly pissing me off. At work I am expected to maintain therapeutic relationships with some very hostile people. On a regular basis I am criticized, ignored and degraded. I've had my wrists grabbed and my face slapped. Usually these people are suffering with dementia or mental illness, but some are just plain hateful. Here's an example of a situation I encountered just this past week:
Resident: Get me an egg sandwich; this dinner is terrible.
Me: We don't have any egg sandwiches but there are some tuna sandwiches in the kitchenette.
Resident: I don't eat tuna! I pay top dollar to live here. There must be someone who can make me an egg sandwich.
Me: (Taking a deep breath and trying to remain calm.) As soon as I finish passing out the dinner trays I'll go down to the main kitchen and see if the staff can make you one.
Resident: You always have to wait for something in this place. What happened to actually caring for people? Nurses aren't what they used to be.
I did go down to the main kitchen and wait while the cook made an egg sandwich but when I brought it back to the resident she ended up taking just one bite and spitting it on the floor. This is horrible. I wouldn't feed this to a dog! I wonder if you can imagine how much it made my blood boil to wipe up spit food off the floor and dumping that uneaten sandwich in the garbage after going out of my way to appease her. Mealtime is very busy in nursing homes and we rarely entertain last minute special requests.
This resident remained rude throughout my shift. I did my best to remain kind and professional but eventually I cracked. As I was getting her ready for bed she threw another snarky criticism at me and it was the straw that broke the camel's back. You're right, I told her angrily, I can't do anything right so why should I bother trying? With that said I abruptly turned and walked out of the room. I didn't return to help her with anything for the remaining hour of my shift. I lost patience.
Actually, I shouldn't say I lost patience because truthfully I don't think I had any to begin with. I was remaining outwardly calm and polite but underneath the surface I was still a ball of nerves. She set my teeth on edge and I hated every minute I spent in her presence. My defenses finally crumbled and I showed my true colors. Then, within minutes, the guilt set in.
I spoke to my pastor about this incident and he lead me to some important insights. Not least of which was that I had been expecting this person to be won over by my actions. Deep down I believed that if I was kind enough she would stop being mean to me. I viewed her bad attitude as my own personal failure. I had been treating her with respect and kindness but she wasn't returning the favor. It was so unfair!
I had been modifying my behaviors but I had not yet changed my thinking. I was merely hiding my frustration. Practicing patience, it turns out, is much more than simply controlling my angry outbursts. True patience involves abandoning my agenda to enter a new perspective -one that seeks to accept and cooperate with the will of others. By acknowledging their independence I free myself from the misery of expectation. Some people will remain distressed and miserable no matter how much love we shower them with. When I approach a relationship with a personal agenda, using my patience and kindness as a tool to get someone to do what I want, I am simply being manipulative. Can I still be kind and patient when that person tosses my agenda out the window? Now there is the real test!
"In your patience possess ye your souls." (Luke 21:19)