“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I learned to be patient.
For most of my life I was all about quick-wittedness, getting things done, and cutting to the chase. I wasn’t unkind, mostly, I was…efficient. I prided myself on being smart and pragmatic.
My goal was always some imagined oasis of “downtime.” If I got everything done quickly and well, I would have more time to lie around and read novels, or talk to friends on the phone, or walk in the woods. Time was currency, and the faster I did homework or laundry or errands, the more time I had in the bank when I was done.
So I was a foot-tapper, a finger-drummer and an interrupter. Nothing made me crazier than a long line that didn’t seem to be moving, or a person who spoke deliberately or said things I considered obvious. I actually owned a T-shirt that said “Does Not Suffer Fools Gladly,” and it was a gift. That should tell you something.
Two things: I missed a lot of stuff, and that oasis of free time never appeared. I crammed more activity into less time, and sped past conversations and opportunities that seemed like nothing so much as snags and traps. The island of idleness receded and folded like a cheap backdrop because more things always needed to be done.
There was a hole, always, at my very center that I labelled “stress.” It was, in reality, the kind of hunger that comes from rushing past the deepest, truest things in this world on the road to “next.”
I began to learn patience when I became a mother. I loved my son irrationally and consumingly, and everything he did was fascinating. I got lost in how he kicked his legs when he was happy, how he wanted to find every Waldo in the book, and the way he could tell me everything about his life in a few sentences after school. (If I really listened instead of hurrying him towards the next activity).
If I didn’t slow down and pay attention, he changed every few days and I missed it. I didn’t want to miss it.
I was, although I didn’t have a name for it yet, learning to be fully present with him, holding his hand and making glacial progress down the sidewalk when he was two, working for hours on book reports when he was nine, and talking through relationship issues when he was fifteen. They were easy lessons, because I was genuinely interested in watching his life unfold, but they were not reduced in value by virtue of their relative ease.
The key was this: when I felt myself twitching, anxious, restless to move faster, I made a conscious effort to pause and slow down. I shut out the noise of clocks and phones and deadlines, and remembered that everything always got done. I stopped and reset as many times as it took, until it became second-nature to flow with the pace of what was actually happening rather than fighting to break free and sprint away.
I had a harder lesson when my parents aged and became ill. I sat with my mother in hospital rooms while she slept a morphine sleep, persuaded her to eat at least a little bit of the food on her tray, and asking her questions about her life, learning her in ways that could not be learned in haste.
I pushed them in wheelchairs when they were tired, one or the other seated in the chair and the other walking slowly beside us, leaning on a cane. It was peaceful where I was, moving at the pace of a small child or maybe a turtle, filling my heart with the presence of people I loved and who loved me. They had, more than anyone in my life, always been patient with me.
It hasn’t always been easy to watch as my parents aged, and it was horrifically painful to lose my mother. But because I was patient, present, able to slow myself down and inhabit every moment, I am full. I am satisfied. I missed nothing.
It is that bearing witness to life at its real speed that has changed me, and taught me patience. I am not ever too busy to listen to a longwinded story from a three-year-old or an elderly person. I am not more important than they are, and neither is my next task.
If I’m a little late to an appointment, or some of the tea water boils away, or I take an hour to answer a text, it’s okay. I’m not being kept from living my life; I’m living it.
If someone keeps me waiting, or doesn’t “get” something right away, or makes a mistake that takes time to fix, it’s okay. Those times, those moments I used to find “unproductive” are gifts. They provide space to contemplate, connect and learn.
There is no oasis of peace and rest that is reached by rushing through a course of “obstacles.” The obstacles are real life.
Every long line has people in it, who are interesting, valuable, and fascinating if I stop tapping my foot and tell them I love their funky purse or flirt with their cute baby. Every long story is part of the essence of a human being who is right there, offering me something of great value. Every stalled car, wrong prescription, clueless waitress and “party bore” is a chance to choose compassion, patience and love over frustration, impatience or anger. I don’t always choose right, but I never regret it when I do.
I can say with certainty that there is no longer a hole at my center. Stress is temporary, put in its place with a moment’s perspective. I move slower, I wait longer, I linger more and I am filled with the beauty in those gentle, open spaces. I think, sometimes, that I can actually feel the pulse of the earth.
Life happens there.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: author’s own