Patience is difficult.
This week, I wait for my son to return home from college for the holidays. I wait with a tender eagerness I could not have imagined as a pregnant woman twenty years ago. My pregnancy had been a season of bliss—until it wasn’t. I was heavy and tired, and he was two weeks late. I wanted to “get on with it,” little knowing that parenting is more like writing an epic poem than it is a set of tidy tasks to be accomplished.
Both parenting and a writing life dedicated to the work of the creative, have taught me most of what I know about patience. As a writer, I know that to rush inspiration is tantamount to killing it. As a parent, I’ve learned that to hurry a child past the point of actual development is profoundly wounding.
Patience is what repressive regimes demand of those under their heel. It is what distracted parents say to the children who seek their attention and love, “Wait!”
Nearly every advancement in social justice throughout history has occurred because a group of people were no longer willing to be “patient,” in the terms of those who would have them remain passive, tractable, oppressed.
Patience is difficult.
In this season of Advent, when the Christian tradition teaches that as spiritual pilgrims we do well to understand the dark unknown as a crucible for inner growth, I believe that we need to learn the difference between holding our tongues at the right time, and speaking out when no one else has the courage to do so. We need to know when to allow those griefs that can’t be rushed, and when to press for clear decisions that will decide the fate of the vulnerable.
Each day, we have the opportunity to understand a little more clearly the true nature of patience by watching our responses to uncertainty. Do we move into active engagement with a new assignment, or do we wait to see what others will do? Do we sit with not having a really good idea until this become uncomfortable, and still sit there, in faith, or do we go for the easy reward? Do we let the silence teach us, or rush to fill it with busyness?
True patience is the necessary surrender to hope. It comes when we open ourselves to the truth that we are vessels more than agents; more midwives than CEOs. Patience—whether with children or creativity or in prayer—involves the process of moving from separateness and an ego-based goal orientation, to a conversation with a reality larger than us, even when that reality, or eventuality, remains unclear. Patience is lending ourselves to this state of becoming; it is, as Mary taught us when she accepted God’s call to her, radical obedience.
When patience is understood, it can become a catalyst for change every bit as much as a force for suspending action in the name of contemplation. Surrender to hope entails giving our time and energies to healing work without demanding proof that we made a difference. If we open ourselves to the conversation, we are able to welcome whatever comes—the rough places and the shadows that will inevitably arise—knowing that by being where we need to be, we are in the right place, and answering our call. Our spiritual practices can help. Experience matters. A seasoned parent, a daily writer, is far more able to weather the frustrations of patience better than the novice.
Patience draws us to love, almost in spite of ourselves, and better than anything I know. For, if we truly love, we become responsive to the fluid terms of “becoming.”
I wait for my son to return for the holidays, knowing that I will need to stretch myself to discover again the young man who walks through the front door. And I will do so with radical patience, and with love.
Kathleen Hirsch is a regular contributor to Crux: All Things Catholic. She teaches at Boston College and is the author of A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness.