In the early 80’s I was still a grad student and teaching my very first intro philosophy course. Some class sessions went pretty well. Others not so much. On one particular morning my lecture had plunged the students into a terminally bored stupor. I spent the rest of the day muttering “stupid, stupid, stupid” to myself.
Later in the afternoon I strolled up a sidewalk to a nearby watering hole to meet some friends for a whining session. A tow-headed little boy of about nine or ten walked toward me. When we were within ten feet of each other, he caught my eye, smiled, tossed up his hands in a silly-me gesture, and laughingly said, “Stupid Jacob!”
How on earth did this kid know my name? Not to mention, how did he know that I’d been calling myself “stupid” for hours? And most incredibly, how did he know just the way to tell me to give myself a break? To show myself a little compassion as a beginning teacher?
I joined my friends and hurriedly told them the story. Our waitress came to the table to take our order. Just then, that little boy strolled up to her. She said, “This is my son Jacob.” He grinned and held up his school bag like a trophy, “I forgot to bring this in. I’ve got to do my homework.”
Well, that explained the name thing. But honestly, I think the lesson was a God thing: be patient with yourself. As I’ve come to see, being patient with myself makes it possible for me to be patient with others. And crucially, patience is how we come to know God.
In his letter to the very early church, James writes, “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” (James 5:7) Even if we weren’t already deep into Advent, many of us will read this to say: “Wait. Hold your temper and tamp down your frustrations. Jesus is coming back, he’s going to fix this mess.”
In other words, most of us think of patience as the struggle to fend off irritability and temper tantrums when we’re frustrated or disappointed by delayed gratification or closure or relief. Bruce Springsteen sounds pretty restless in these lyrics:
Radio’s on and I’m movin’ ’round my place
I check my look in the mirror
Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face
Man, I ain’t gettin’ nowhere
I’m just livin’ in a dump like this
There’s somethin’ happenin’ somewhere (Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing in the Dark”)
We rush around looking for the pill or the food or the job, the haircut or the car or the sex partner who will relieve us or gratify us or anesthetize us. Patience is simply waiting to get the thing we don’t have. And, man, nobody chooses to spend time in the waiting room if they don’t have to.
By contrast, I’ve begun to think about patience as the way to acknowledge and to respond to a basic state of our humanity. We are restless, but not in the way portrayed in those lyrics. God made us that way.
Augustine sees our restlessness as essential to our spiritual life. In his Confessions, he famously writes, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until in rests in you.” God created us to be in seamless, continuous relationship with us. We are who we most truly are in relationship with our Maker.
In this life our union with God is always fleeting and incomplete. We will be restless. And yet that very restlessness—our deep longing—points beyond this moment to the eternal.
Patience is learning to stay with ourselves as imperfect and incomplete. Learning to be compassionate with ourselves. And from that patience with ourselves emerges our ability to be patient with others. Patience is how we love ourselves, how we love others, and how we love God.
Richard Rohr puts it this way:
Our task is simply to embody heaven now. We cannot “get there”; we can only “be there”—which ironically is to “be here!” Love, like prayer, is not so much an action that we do, but a reality that we are. We don’t decide to be loving. Love is our True Self. It is where we came from and where we’re going. All spiritual growth is no more than a matter of becoming who we already are. (“The Search for the Real,” CAC, Dec. 20, 2017)
Patience is being here, I mean really being here—with yourself and with others as we actually are—because that is where God is.
This essay is drawn from my latest book: Looking for God in Messy Places. If you’re looking for an Advent read or a Christmas gift, click here to learn more and grab a copy.