Patience…a dying virtue?


Patience is defined in Collins English Dictionary as ‘tolerant and even-tempered perseverance’ or ‘the capacity for calmly enduring pain, trying situations, etc.’

The old saying tells us, ‘Patience is a virtue.’

So, what do you think? Is it a dying virtue?

When you’re standing in a queue, do you find that the people around you wait calmly and tolerantly? What if someone impatiently pushes to the front of the queue? Does the mood of the others change? Do you hear them remarking to one another, ‘Oh, that’s okay, he must be in a hurry.’? Let’s face it, to borrow one of my husband’s astute observations, there will always be those people who can enter a revolving door behind you and come out ahead of you.

Patience is a quality that has to be learned, cultivated, nurtured. This modern, technologically advanced society we live in seems to me not to be nurturing patience, in me or anyone else. I mean, who is there of you out there who has not become frustrated when the internet is slow and your message does not send immediately? We fill those few extra seconds with sighs and finger tapping, perhaps looking around for another task to fill the gaping void of a few seconds, or horror of horrors, a minute! Instant messaging should be instant! What’s wrong with this stupid connection?

We’re increasingly opting for ‘instant messaging’. Emails take too long: there are introductory and concluding greetings usually expected and proper spelling and punctuation.  Top that off with the fact that you have to wait hours, days sometimes to get a reply. As for letter-writing! Well, you can forget that!

They call it ‘Fast Food’, yet here we are, our cars revving, waiting behind someone who can’t decide what delicacy to opt for! Three times she changed her mind! Three times! Then she got in a muddle which window to pay at, from which one to collect her order. Man! We had to hang around there for five minutes!

The few minutes it takes for your computer to boot up, for the traffic lights to change, for a bus or a train to appear…eternity.

Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a Family Psychologist observes that ‘we have become an immediate gratification culture, and we expect things to move quickly, efficiently and in the way we want. When that doesn’t happen, we tend to become increasingly frustrated and irritable.’ She reckons, ‘We’ve lost the art of just slowing down and enjoying the moment.’

Sometimes, the ability to exercise patience is essential. Many years ago, I worked for The Caledonian Steam Packet Company, a part of British Rail at the time. Our office, in which I calculated the salaries for the officers on the steamers ferrying passengers across the River Clyde, was located close to the rail terminal. One day, we became aware of a great deal of fuss going on outside. It transpired that a young girl had thrown open the carriage door and jumped from the train as it pulled into the platform. She was screaming and her clothes were torn and in disarray. ‘He tried to rape me!’ she shouted, collapsing into the arms of the station porter. With great presence of mind, the porter slammed the door of the carriage shut and whistled for assistance, summoning the driver, the guard and other porters to his aid. While one porter ran to the office to phone for the police and send out one of the secretaries to look after the distressed young girl, the guard opened the carriage door and demanded that the man surrender himself into their custody till the police arrived. The gentleman politely declined, declaring he would sit where he was for the moment.

Eventually, to the accompaniment of flashing lights and sirens, a host of police cars screeched to a halt outside our office and policemen aplenty raced to the scene.

Once again, the gentleman was ordered from the carriage. Once again, he declined, graciously but firmly. ‘I will not leave this compartment until the officer in charge agrees to join me inside it,” he said.

Now, what you have to remember is, this was the age of the steam train. The old-fashioned carriages comprised a number of self-contained compartments, with no interconnecting doors, no corridors running the length of the train. The only way in or out of the compartment was one of the doors on either side of it; one looking out over the tracks and one leading down to the station platform. The girl had thus been ‘imprisoned’ with the man until the train stopped at Gourock Station, the terminus.

It was noted by the growing crowd of on-lookers that the man sat very still and displayed remarkable patience with all the commotion going on around him. The girl was sobbing hysterically and repeating her allegations to each newcomer on the scene. The gentleman made no attempt to escape or explain.

The police officer in charge entered the compartment. The gentleman requested that he not be touched or disturbed until he made his defence. The police officer ordered a constable to take down notes of the ‘confession’. Everyone waited in hushed silence, shushing the girl so they could hear the clearer.

‘Dear Sir,’ the gentleman began. ‘I’d be obliged if you would describe to your constable what you observe about my demeanour.’

‘Well…you’re well-dressed, clean-shaven, of neat and gentlemanly appearance. You’re sitting quietly and patiently, one leg across the other. Your shoes are polished.’

‘And in my hand,’ the gentleman prompted.

‘And in your hand, you have a cigar,’ the police officer said. ‘Ah! I see now why you sat here with such patience.’ He turned to the other policemen and ordered them to arrest the young woman and charge her with wasting police time. ‘There is no way this man could have attacked or molested this woman. Could you stand now, Sir,’ he asked the man.

As soon as the man made the slightest movement, two long, delicate inches of cigar ash fell from his cigar, the accumulation of many, many minutes of quiet burning. And the fact that they were there to fall, in front of witnesses, the reward of calm endurance under trying circumstances, tolerant and even-tempered perseverance…the reward of patience…and quick thinking.

Writers may not be patient people in every situation, but I believe they are in their writer-lives. They have to be. To be able to endure the months and years of waiting to see the results of their labours in print, to be able to tease out the best word to describe the perfection of a flower, the vastness of a panorama, the feelings of a reticent character, a writer has to learn patience, to cultivate it, to nourish it.

I recently read an excellent paragraph in Kirsten Lamb’s most interesting blog:

‘Being a successful writer is a lot like being a successful anything. One must, of course, at least possess some talent. But, talent alone isn’t enough. Talent is like a vein of gold buried deep in a mountain of granite. Unless someone works really hard, the gold is worthless. Someone needs to put in the sweat equity to mine that gold, refine it, and transform it into something the world finds valuable.’

Now, in this age of instant messaging, fast food, immediate gratification, is that not an excellent example of the need for patience? The need to slow down and look around, to take your time as you turn over apposite phrases, delightful words that you may find the precious ones.

Yes, for any aspiring writer, patience surely is a virtue and one that we need not to allow to die.




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