Patience (n.): the calm endurance of pain of any provocation; perseverance; forbearance; quiet and self-possessed waiting for something.”
Okay, that’s nice, but are we there yet?
Patience is a virtue, so the saying goes, but I disagree. Yes, it’s possible to have the patience of a saint, but it’s also possible to have the patience of the devil. Many crimes and abuses have been committed by people patient enough to wait, preparing all the while to strike. Aggressors against others are often very, very patient. For the victims of those aggressive or oppressive acts there is more wisdom than virtue in ensuring your survival by keeping your head below the parapet and biding your time. Patience is a strategy, a behaviour, a matter of judgement, of choice-in-circumstance. Just as courage is called out only in the existence of fear, patience comes into existence in the presence of, and in response to, impatience. It requires the exercise of personal restraint and impulse control in the service of a greater end goal, and it may feel entirely counter-intuitive in the moment. I hesitate to disagree with my trusty Collins Dictionary, but it may not feel anything like “calm endurance” or “quiet and self-possessed waiting.” Yes, the patient person waits, but it’s an active state involving paying attention, reflecting, planning. Patience isn’t a thing. It’s a capacity, an attitude. It’s an ongoing recallibration of approach rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a work in progress, a practice, an art.
Yes, yes, so you say, but are we there yet?
Well, no, sorry. So far, 2020 has been many things: the year of the rat, the year of the houseplant, anti-racism year (also, year of racism), election year, domestic violence year (again), year of the mask, year of the lockdown, furlough year, staycation year, economic recession year and – to date, 7 September 2020 – the year that almost 900,000 people died in a global pandemic, with an as-yet unknown number of others surviving but suffering from as-yet poorly understood post-viral effects. The history books will peg it as the year of Covid-19. Or … the first of several Covid-19 years.
But are we there yet?
Hush there in the back seat. Count sheep. Watch the clouds. First to see a tractor gets a Jet Plane. A donkey’s worth two. And could you put your phone down for a sec? Click, swipe, scan, click, click. As a culture we’ve become habituated to the fast pace of digital communications, seduced by a constant stream of potentially dopamine-inducing moments: quick answers, entertainment and distraction always at our fingertips. We’ve got somewhat out of practice with slower, less instantly-rewarding styles of engagement with others and the world. We are perhaps not as good at listening and waiting as we could be, not as endurance-fit as we are sprint-ready.
Ho hum. But are we there yet?
Well, no, sorry, but I am trying to keep this short. Now that the early, easy bit is over – Tiger King and teddy bears in windows and car-free streets and tight bubbles and all that ancient history – how’s your quiet and self-possessed waiting going? Are you still meditating, propagating, cogitating? Reading Proust? Doing PE with Joe? Feeding your sourdough? Planting your organic garden? Putting down a cellar of ginger beer? Learning Māori? Learning Chinese? Writing poems? Finishing your novel? How long is that scarf you started knitting in March? Oh, you stopped? You’re skipping from option to option on Netflix, looking at YouTube with seven tabs open and your alerts pinging? You’re irritable, anxious, sleeping poorly? You want certainty. Your attention span is frayed. Your concentration is terrible. You’re bored. You’re broke. You’re annoyed. You feel hemmed in, constrained. You’re tired of being told what to do and what not to do. Somebody must be to blame. You’re over this. You want things to go back to normal.
Yet take the long historical view, and ‘normal’ is precisely where humanity finds itself in 2020: not in control of circumstances, needing to exercise patience, taking the wise option to hunker down until conditions improve. We probably need to remember how to wait, not by honking the horn at the slow car ahead, and not by fermenting resentment and revenge, but how to taihoa more gracefully, artfully, frutifully. Pick up that pencil again? Daydream and doodle? Draw a picture? Write a letter and post it? Open that abandoned too-long book and read an entire paragraph slowly from first word to last, skipping nothing in between? Just sit and breathe?
Yada, yada, yada. Are we there now?
Sweetheart, it’s only been nine months! This thing is just a newborn. We are not there yet. Not even close. This is the year of digging deep, of hanging in there, figuring things out, of living with uncertainty and lack of control. It might be the year we rediscover the delicate, difficult and almost forgotten art of patience. I’ve never been good at it and I’m very out of practice, but if there’s something positive I can actually do in 2020, maybe it’s simply working on that.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.