"There's probably no virtue more misunderstood or undervalued than patience. Despite the fact that we customarily pay lip service to patience, especially when paternalistically lecturing young people, it's not a habit of the heart that too many adults really want to spend a lot of time cultivating. As Lucy says in an old Peanuts cartoon, 'I was praying for patience but I stopped. I was afraid I might get it.'
"Our lack of enthusiasm for patience stems partly from our cultural mania for busyness. We associate success, public reputation, and self-esteem with being on the go, getting things done, moving onwards and upwards, never being satisfied. In this buzzing kind of atmosphere, recommending or practicing patience comes across as an excuse for 'settling.'
"Our culture also puts a high premium on painlessness. We avoid any kind of physical, mental, or emotional suffering, especially when it appears pointless, and we automatically presume that anyone not doing so is neurotic. Patience in the face of suffering comes across as either a pathetic kind of denial born of cowardice or a masochism that masquerades as piety or stoic indifference.
"Patience is also popularly associated with powerlessness or vulnerability, both of which stick in the craw of a culture that values strength, health, and celebrity. A person should be patient, we think, only as a last resort. The appropriate time for patience is when all our efforts to fix things have failed and our backs are against the wall. Patience isn't an option for people who are still able to take the initiative and shape their destiny. Instead, it's for those who have lost agency and opportunity and have no choice but to put up with what's left them.
"In short, our fast-paced, success-oriented, pain-avoiding, and assertive culture is impatient with patience. We so misunderstand its true nature that what we reject is a caricature of it. Genuine patience is neither passive nor lazy. On the contrary, it's a deliberate act of the will that requires colossal self-discipline. The patient person isn't withdrawing from the world so much as resolutely participating in it in a special way.
"Similarly, patience in the face of suffering is neither cowardly denial nor a masochistic reveling in pain. It's an effort to recollect oneself so that the ability to relate to the broader world beyond one's own pain doesn't get buried in self-absorption or self-pity. As one commentator puts it, patience is actually 'attentive' suffering. Everyone suffers. It's inescapable. But while the impatient person tries to shield himself in one way or another from suffering, the patient one makes herself present to it, listens to it, tries to discern what it might have to tell her, and responds to it. In disciplining herself to patience, she transforms her relationship to the experience of suffering. In attending to suffering, she turns it into something other than an external force or event that knocks the wind out of her. She makes it part of who she is. It's still an unwelcome presence, but it's no longer completely alien.
"Theologian Dorothee Soelle echoes this understanding of patience in the face of suffering. 'The Christian idea of the acceptance of suffering,' she writes, 'means something more than and different from what is expressed in the words "put up with, tolerate, bear." With these words, the object, the suffering itself, remains unchanged.' But when I accept or attend to my suffering, it 'belongs to me in a different sense from something I only bear . . . I take on an assignment; I say yes, I consent, I assent, I agree with.'
"Finally, while it's true that situations typically calling for patience are ones in which we're at our most vulnerable, it's not at all the case that vulnerability is necessarily a bad thing. Although it may be difficult for a culture fixated on pain-avoidance to appreciate, vulnerability is a necessary condition for both self-knowledge and the ability to relate meaningfully to other people and God. Individuals who experience vulnerability lose the inflated ego so characteristic of worldly go-getters. They have a good sense of their fragility as well as their dependence on others, and this in turn helps them empathize with other fragile people. A patient person, precisely because he's vulnerable, is strong in ways that really count."