Patience: An Eleventh Word In My Dictionary of Good Teaching

3:00 a.m. Can’t sleep. The house is quiet. My angelic Susan is still in Charlotte tending her mother. I came back early because Robby had to chef on New Year’s Eve. Can’t walk. This stuffy cold is a drag. While waiting for the warm milk to kick in, I was going through a couple of weeks of backlog messages. I came upon one entitled “Another Word?” I knew it was from Kenny. He’s such a glorious pain.

“Hey, doc,” he wrote after the required inquiries about the holidays, “classes are about to begin again. What’s the “word for the term?”

The very next message gave me his answer. It was from another student who had graduated last May. She wrote in an air of frustration, “I want so much to help these rural kids. There’s so much to do and so much in the way, and I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to do it all. I’m so impatient! Help me!”

“Impatient.” That word struck home, especially now. I want to take you back to events that occurred at a dazzling, uncontrollable speed at one o’clock in the morning on December 24th near Macon, Georgia. I, Robby, and Nicole were driving to Charlotte to meet Susan for a family gathering: a dark, drizzly morning in Georgia, traveling at the 65 MPH speed limit, everyone asleep and buckled in, suddenly cut off, veered to avoid collision, lost orientation, windows awashed, couldn’t see, hit a low embuttment at nearly full speed, car took off, no time to have my life pass before my eyes, air bags burst opened, smoky haze inside the car, couldn’t see, front windshield exploded, couldn’t see, car hard front-landed half on slippery grass and half on asphalt shoulder, finally came to a halt, blessed ABS brakes, car is not in good shape, everyone came out of it without a scratch, finally made it to Charlotte just before Christmas Eve, hugged Susan a bit tighter, buried my head in her neck a bit deeper, a bit longer, a bit more lovingly with grateful tears in my eyes.

You have to understand that each moment after you survive being driven into a highway embuttment at nearly 65 MPH and come out of it without a scratch to yourself or your kids is one hell of a Chanukah present. I think I would recommend almost dying to everyone. It sure is a character builder. You come out of it with a much clearer understanding that the preciousness and beauty of life is important and little else truly matters. You feel a great release from what I’ll call “the body of wants.” All your senses are so honed that you get an intense and almost insatiable savoring of the glorious newness of each moment. As you capture each “this is it” moment, as you experience what in Zen is called, “the best season of your life,” as you make each moment vital and worth living, as you don’t let it slip away unnoticed and unused, you feel freer, lighter, happier, easier, and much more peaceful and more patient. If I had a deep appreciation and intense love of life, it was nothing compared to how I now feel. It’s amazing how five seconds can have such a profound impact on your life.

I told Selena all that was swirling in my head and heart and soul, and added, “It’s not a matter of keeping score. You have to first have to cultivate an inner attitude and ethical behavior of patience. Patience is far more powerful and wholesome than is anxiety. Patience is a theme that repreated over and over again in all of the world’s great philosophical and religious texts. The Greeks and Romans call it the greatest of all virtues. The early Christian fathers called it a “contrary virtue” to protect you against frustration and anger. In Zen it is a display of peace and compassion. In Islam, it is more important than prayer. It is seen as the companion, if not the root, of perseverance, trust, conviction, faith, stength, determination, hope, belief, wisdom, humility, courage, confidence, commitment, endurance, attention, awareness, mindfulness, understanding. Cultivate patience, then, you almost can’t help cultivating all these other ethical attitudes and behaviors. Be patient, especially with yourself. You want everything to change overnight? You know that saying about rebuilding Rome in a day? Maybe there is even a touch of arrogance and self-righteousness in such a hurried desire. There is a story in the Talmud that goes something like this: An aged man, whom Abraham hospitably invited to his tent, refused to join him in prayer to the one spiritual God. Learning that the old man was a non-believer, Abraham drove him from his door. Later that night, God appeared to Abraham in a vision. ‘I have borne with that ignorant man for 70 years,’ he said. ‘Could you not have patiently suffered him one night?’”

Feeling like Paul writing to the Galatians, I went on and said, “Tell me, what wound heals in a hurry? Ask any athlete what happens when you try to rush Nature’s healing process. Being in a hurry, wanting to do it all all at once, usually doesn’t help. You usually will just give yourself an Excedrin headache. It just muddies up the waters. The more patient you are, the clearer and sharper you will see and listen, the less things will be in a blur, the more you will understand, and the more you’ll be in touch. Sure, there is a lot to do. Sure, there is a lot that stands in your way. It’s okay to have a restlessness. Just have a patient restlessness. It’s okay to be in a hurry. Just hurry patiently. Just don’t push it and don’t let yourself be pushed. Sometimes you do an awful lot by not doing. Don’t flit about. Don’t let your anxieties and your desires and your needs dominate the quality of the moment. If you let yourself be blown about by the “I have to” winds, you’ll lose touch with those around you, who you are, and who you can be. It is the path to anger and frustration and burn out. Just don’t let yourself get down or tired. Don’t lose courage. Don’t lose heart. You have to acquire a strength to be weak. Nothing comes all at once. Things unfold in their own time one little step at a time. Renew yourself completely each day; do it again, and again, and again, and again and always again. Everything will come if you wait until the right moment comes for you to do the right thing with the right understanding in the right way. Learn to know how and when to push and how and when to pull and when not to push and when not to pull. None of this is easy.”

Nothing of what I told Selina is easy. Yet, patience is the essence of teaching. Patience affects the quality of your day and affecting the quality of your day is one of the greatest of talents. When we say, ‘I have no more patience,’ or ‘I’ve run out of patience,’ it is finished. Patience holds more freedom and compassion, it offers more discovery, it has a greater staying the course power, than we could imagine. I told Selena that when she is feeling impatient, she should look deeply to see if she has given up hope or is afraid of giving up hope. I quoted a Sufi saying: patience is fed on hope, it stands on the feet of hope. As long as there is hope, there is patience; and, when hope is gone, then there is no more patience.

“I think understanding the critical role of patience in teaching,” I went on to tell her, “is simple if we take a lesson from nature. Nature never starts big. In nature, change, growth, development always starts slow and small. There is no true suddenness in nature, no true spontaneous creation. Nothing ‘just pops up and happens’ spontaneously. Even in an earthquake or volcanic explosion, there is a slow build up. In my garden, if I want a flower I must have time, make the time, and give it time. There first must be the seed, then the seedling, then the plant, then the flower. Different flowers bloom at different times in different ways at different paces. They don’t bloom according to our time anymore than we bloom according to anyone else’s stopwatch. It’s no different with you, me, students, colleagues, or institutions. .”

So, thinking about what I said to Selina, “patience” is my next word, my eleventh I think, in my Dictionary For Good Teaching, that “word of the term” I will give Kenney.

Make it a good day.

–Louis–
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