Essay: “I believe patience takes courage”
I believe patience takes courage. I didn’t come up with this (I’m too busy being impatient). I heard it from American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. At first her words struck me as odd, a contradiction of terms: How can doing nothing—waiting—be courageous? Certainly in our American make-it-happen, get-‘er-done society, we don’t often make such a connection.
Yet I have been making that connection ever since, and finding—no, needing—ways to believe it. You see, I’m a 40-something unemployed English teacher, a never-been-married, East Coast transplant living in the West seeking some semblance of stability. And, at the risk of sounding like the spoiled brat in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, I want it now!
I want a lasting relationship, a stable career, a home to decorate, a garden to grow, and a back yard for my two cats—in, by the way, whose yellow eyes I also detect a glint of world weariness.
My believing that patience takes courage comes not so much from practicing patience as from not practicing it.
For example, the time I proposed to my boyfriend after only five months of dating was premature, embarrassing, humiliating and stupid—the shape of many valuable lessons. Though I loved him then, as I do now, I was also grasping for solid ground. I’ve heard marriage can offer that.
Okay, you can stop laughing.
My boyfriend’s words—“too much too soon”—still hurt. But he was right. Pema Chodron is right: Sometimes you have to let things evolve in their own time. This doesn’t mean laziness or passivity. It means sowing your seeds and standing back, not impatiently prodding the earth with a stick and crying, “Well? Well? Grow! Grow!” Sometimes you just have to wait.
Unfortunately, waiting is often a scary place to be. It implicitly acknowledges a loss of complete control and personal power, entertaining the possibility of things happening to us. We Westerners don’t like being on that end of “to.” It spells fear, and such fear can be excruciating and powerful and make you do something when doing nothing would be better.
Recently I heard the story of World War II POWs who’d purposely misbehave to provoke the guards into torturing or executing them. These soldiers could bear warfare, but they could not bear the uncertainty of waiting.
Life can feel like this. Unable to bear the uncertainty, we push and prod and rattle the cages of our worlds, but only creating personal prisons. If only we could breathe deeply and wait. Whenever I am able to patiently wait, the universe has responded: I’ve gotten what I needed, sometimes even what I wanted.
Buddhist philosophy tells us that stability is an illusion. That true stability lies in one’s ability to let go of wanting it. Pema Chodron talks a lot about becoming comfortable with “groundlessness,” and to accept the natural accompanying fear as a gift toward awakening.
I imagine that some of the POWs who found the courage to sit with the pain and fear of waiting, survived. For sure they know a fear I cannot even imagine, but they teach me a lot: When I can summon the courage to be still and face the illusion of stability, I have a much better chance of surviving, and maybe even flourishing. This I believe.
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