When I was a kid, my brother Glenn told me I was adopted, that they had awakened one morning, opened their front door, and there I was, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a banana box. I was maybe five years old when Glenn told me that, and was initially distressed.
I asked my father if it were true and he said, “We love you just as much as our other children.”
I trusted my sister to tell me the truth, and when I asked her she said, “The banana box was our only clue. We think you were born to a checkout girl from the IGA.”
As I said, at first I was troubled by this revelation, but then as I grew older and spent time with my extended family, my aunts and uncles and cousins, I began to take comfort in my origins.
It all came undone when I was around eight. My mother had promised to take me to the Danner’s Five and Dime so I could buy a pet turtle. I had been saving my money. On the morning of the big event, I began badgering my mom to take me. “Are you ready? I’m ready. When will you be ready?”
She sighed. “You are so impatient,” she said. “Just like your grandfather?”
My grandfather? How did she know my grandfather?
That, of course, is when it occurred to me that I had not been delivered in a banana box and that all those odd people with whom I had been spending holidays, the old men from Belgium wearing ratty sweaters and arguing in Walloon and the old women who made ham loaf and rubbed their spit on my cowlick, were my blood kin. And I was just like them. Impatient. It was in my blood. Impatient. Just like my grandpa.
When I began walking through the Bible as a teenager and stumbled upon the fruits of the spirit in the fifth chapter of Galatians—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—I worried I was in serious trouble. Love and joy and peace, I could pull those off when necessary, but not patience, because I was just like my grandfather, and consequently had little capacity to accept and tolerate trouble and suffering with good cheer.
When I wanted something, I wanted it right now.
When I was sick, I wanted to be better right now.
When someone hurt me, I wanted them to realize it and apologize right now.
When I didn’t understand something, I wanted clarity right now.
When I had a problem, I wanted it solved immediately.
Though I’m speaking in the past tense, my impatience remains a present condition in my life. Ironically, I have learned I can also be very patient.
If something unjust is happening to someone else, I can wait patiently for someone else to do something about it.
If someone else lacks something they needed, I can wait patiently for someone else to supply it.
If our nation acts dishonorably, I can wait patiently for someone else to correct the wrong.
If my generation is leaving a problem for my son’s generation to fix, I can wait patiently for someone else to find a solution.
So I am a man of contradictions. I can be impatient and quite patient. My problem is one of timing. I am impatient when it comes to tolerating my pain and discomfort. I want the world to bend immediately to meet my need, do my will, and make me happy. But I am patient, far too patient, when it comes to the suffering of others, perfectly willing to let time and others do the necessary work of justice, healing, and compassion. Maybe that is your problem, too. Maybe, like me, you have confused the proper timing of patience and impatience.
This imbalance is what Harry Truman was getting at when he said, “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose your own.”
If we’re interested in knowing ourselves, in understanding ourselves, wouldn’t it be helpful if we asked ourselves, “What difficulties and troubles am I willing to endure with patience and good cheer?” and its opposite, “What difficulties and troubles am I unwilling to endure with patience and good cheer?” Wouldn’t our answers to those questions tell us a great deal about ourselves?
Have you ever noticed how you learn about life in the most unexpected ways from the most unexpected teachers? I have a motorcycle buddy who’s a motor head. If something is propelled by an internal combustion engine, my friend can fix it. He’s also far more conservative than me and frequently calls me a pinko communist, which I overlook because if I stopped being friends with everyone who was more conservative than me I’d have no friends. Just the other day a man got mad at me about something I had written and sent me an email calling me a socialist, and I replied by thanking him for noticing. But I’m straying from my point, which is patience and impatience.
So what I’ve expected from my friend is an expertise with motors and a contrary view of politics. I was working in my garage the other night and he came in. I could tell he was bothered, so I asked him what was wrong. It turns out he’d had an argument with his 13 year-old son, that his son had acted immaturely in public and had refused to do what his dad had asked. My friend had reacted with impatience, frustration and anger. We’ve all been there.
I talked with him about how 13 year-old boys are full of hormones, how they’re trying to assert their independence, then told him a story or two of times I had disobeyed my father, and how in turn both my sons had disobeyed me. I assured him it would get better. Then we talked about vintage British motorcycles and when he left he was in a better mood. Two days later, he came back. We were sitting in our kitchen by the wood stove, and I asked him how he and his son were getting along. He said, “Much better. I decided nothing could be gained by responding to my 13 year-old son’s immaturity with my 53 year-old immaturity.”
Patience: our capacity to accept delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.
While it is true there are some things that should be met with our impatience, met with our unwillingness to accommodate injustice and evil, it is also true that facing our difficulties with good cheer is a virtue. Thus, did Paul say that patience was a fitting measure of our walk with God.