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Patience


Patience is a virtue/ Have it if you can / Never in a woman / And seldom in a man.

Well, whoever said that was a misogynist of the first water. Seems to me that women are much more patient than men. But I digress—without even having established a point to digress from.

What got me thinking about patience was watching my goldfish under the ice the other morning. We just had a cold snap here in the Duke City, making for about three inches of ice on the little goldfish pond in the back yard. Three inches isn’t cause for worry; the goldfish have been “wintering over” for many years and as long as the ice doesn’t get to six inches or more (the pond is only a foot deep) they are fine. But it is not a life I would endorse. There they were, hanging still in water barely above freezing and resigned to hanging in for weeks if need be. No TV. No Twitter. No Kindle. But no complaints as far as I could tell. You could point out that fish in such cold are practically comatose—how much credit do you get for patience if you are in a coma?—but I chose to see it as a virtuous acceptance of one’s fishy fate, and an inspiration to us all. Patience. Just be patient as I muddle through this wonk, ok?

For Christians, patience is one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues, along with chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, and humility. These are the virtues to be cultivated to help you get to Heaven (cf. the Seven Deadly Sins). I doubt that my goldfish expect Heaven, but neither would I charge them with gluttony, sloth, envy, etc., so it’s a wash. The etymology is pretty straightforward, from a Latin root meaning to suffer or to undergo. It is the same root behind “passive,” suggesting a link to passive/aggressive behavior (patience wears many masks, not all of them attractive). In a rare usage, a patient is one who undergoes the action of another, i.e., the opposite of an agent. I suppose that a doctor’s client is called a patient because he is willing to undergo some treatment—to have something done to him—to recover his health. And Patience can be a woman’s name, a holdover from the Puritans’ zeal and easier to bear (patiently) than “Everlasting Salvation Smith” or the like. I think I used to know twins—very attractive twins—named Patience and Prudence, but maybe I just read that somewhere. Finally, the card game solitaire is also known as patience. I like that.

Patience without hope is pointless. From a Christian perspective this is not a problem, since one always hopes for salvation. Even the prisoner on death row can have that kind of hope and even if his immediate circumstances are hardly enviable. A better case, and there are far too many of them, is the prisoner who is wrongly convicted and never gives up hope, is always patient. Just the other day a man’s innocence was established (let’s hear it for DNA evidence) after thirty-one years, and remarkably he didn’t seem bitter about his long incarceration; in Mississippi, two sisters railroaded into prison were freed after seventeen years. For all that time they patiently hoped. They took self-help classes. They prayed. That’s patience. That’s the patience of Job!

They don’t give out medals for patience, and that seems a shame. It’s courage and valor that get the glory while patience sits patiently in the corner. It’s just not very glamorous. And it’s not a virtue in a home invasion.

Patience also implies kairos, waiting for the opportune moment and then seizing it. Think of the cheetah lurking in the tall grass. Is that zebra close enough now? Is he distracted? Can the cat make its move right now or will it be a futile waste of energy? Or the wife waiting to do in her no-good husband while he sleeps. Just dozing is too risky. Better wait until the s.o.b. is in deep r.e.m. sleep, even if you have been planning this send-off for months and can hardly wait. Then there’s the patience of grudges, of biding your time, of nursing that grudge until the pain becomes a perverse pleasure. Patience, as I said, is not always attractive.

You might point out that a prisoner or a goldfish really has little choice but to be patient. I would suggest a distinction, though. Patience is an attitude. It is the difference between recognizing hope and imagining a better future, and letting your everydays eat you up, corrupt your soul. That’s a distinction worth making.

Well, I did eventually chop the ice out when it had got to almost six inches. Had to go at it with ax and sledge hammer, but I got the job done. Now the backyard is mounded with ice chunks for the new puppy to gnaw at, and the fish did seem grateful as I topped up the water and let it overflow a while. Then this morning I was able to walk on the pond again, so more chopping is on my to-do list. Such patient fish.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is shea@macinstruct.com.


 
                          





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