“An ancient story from the Jewish Talmud [Shabbat 31a] tells about the time two men made a bet whether Hillel, the wise and famous rabbi, could be made to lose his patience. One of the men waited until late Friday — the sacred Sabbath night — and interrupted Hillel as he prepared for his day of rest. Three times the man knocked at Hillel’s door, and each time he asked a silly, if not trivial, question. And yet each time, Hillel respected both the questioner and the question with a worthy answer. This was just too much for the man to bear, and at last he blurted out that Hillel’s patience had just cost him a large sum of money. Again, the rabbi calmly answered that the value of patience was worth much, much more than any worldly sum.”
–Donald Altman, Living Kindness: The Buddha’s Ten Guiding Principles for a Blessed Life
“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”
–Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
I have never been good at being patient.
I have, on more than one occasion, lost something, looked for it for five seconds, decided it was gone forever, and immediately purchased a replacement–only to find the original the next day. I have started cleaning the house after a party before the last guests have even left. I have refreshed a webpage over and over in the futile hope that the email or test grade I am waiting for will have magically appeared. I have tried to characterize this as a positive trait, demonstrating a “can-do, fix-it” attitude, but if I’m being honest, it’s really just impatience.
I have been thinking a lot about patience these past few months. I have spent a lot of my time waiting. Waiting for phone calls. Waiting for answers. Waiting for results. And this waiting, for an impatient person, is torture. With every second, every minute, I have to wait, I feel more and more helpless, and more and more angry. Because there is nothing anyone can do to make those seconds and minutes tick by faster. No amount of wishing or thinking or planning, nothing in human control, can shorten that interminable time.
I used to think of patience as something passive. Some people had patience, and this somehow made waiting bearable. Only recently, I have begun to think of patience as something active: something I can practice, nourish, and grow. For now, for me, this is only accomplished in small steps. Breathe in, breathe out; one second gone. Breathe in, breathe out; two seconds gone. Lean into each moment, instead of fighting it. Turn my attention towards something besides the thing for which I am waiting, and thirty minutes or an hour disappears. Each moment has the potential to become a tiny Shabbat: a period of time in which one can be fully present, in which the world is perfect as it is. And inevitably, that moment passes, one day sliding into the next.
My capacity for patience is far from that of Hillel’s. My meditative practice cannot compare to any monk’s. But each day, my patience grows a little stronger, and someday, I will perhaps be an impatient person no longer—I just only have to wait patiently for that day.
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