Edicts for living (9) Be patient

Emily Greene Balch is one of the two women listed on my Nobel Peace centre postcard. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 in recognition of her work for world peace and disarmament. She was an American economist, sociologist and pacifist and combined her academic work with lifelong interests in social issues such as poverty, child labour, teenage social delinquency, immigration and integration. Her words, which inspired this edict, were: “Let us be patient with one another. And even patient with ourselves. We have a long, long way to go.”

I love this quote because it underpins the deep, complex and long-term nature of development and learning of both individuals and of society in general. It is a welcome antidote to the short-term and quick-fix strategy of government and the majority of human endeavours in today’s social and commercial world.

But what does it mean to be patient? The etymological basis of this word is an old one, derived from the twelfth century Old French pacience meaning to experience and to bear adversity and calmly endure suffering and the Latin patentia , which means the quality of suffering, continuing or enduring. (https://www.etymonline.com/word/patience)

According to most modern-day dictionary definitions, for example, Dictionary.com ( https://www.dictionary.com › browse › patience ), “the quality of being patient is a noun and it infers the capacity to bear provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like. an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay”. The definition then goes on to exemplify this quality by the capacity to accept and suppress annoyance at another’s slow learning.

Being able to accept the pace of another’s learning must surely be fundamental to all relationships, for example; those between parents and children, spouses, lovers, friends, employers and employees, even those of a distant and formal nature between those in authority and those over whom they have authority. Louise Hay, an American motivational and spiritual author and speaker, claims in her book ‘The Power is Within You’, that lacking patience or impatience is a resistance to learning. She has a good point because when you examine anything in your own learning history it is nearly always the case that learning only happened when you accepted and worked through challenge, frustration and/or failure.  

This leads nicely to a famous piece of social psychology research by Professor Walter Mischel of Columbia University, known as the marshmallow test of pre-schoolers’ deferred gratification and self control. In this experimental design a child is given a marshmallow and told that if they can wait for a few minutes before eating it they will be given more. The minutes or seconds that the child is able to wait is used as a measure of their ability to delay gratification or, to be patient, and then correlated with later-life achievement outcomes such as academic qualifications and employment income. The original experiment was conducted in 1972 and was heavily criticised for its control and measurement of experimental conditions, i.e., the presence or absence of actual ‘treats’, the sampling and also the interpretation of results. The original study mainly used the children of academics from Stanford university and it did not control for socio-economic factors and influences. A later replication of the study in 2018 did, however, find that measures of deferred gratification of pre-schoolers and later-age life outcomes between children from low social-economic status (SES) families and high SES families differed to a statistically significant degree.

The marshmallow test of deferred gratification highlights the complexity of this subject. As usual, what we can claim as definitive and absolute truth, when it comes to human behaviour, attitudes and personal qualities, is limited and always provisional. I would no more suggest that because an individual has all of their material needs met, they are more likely to be patient than someone who is struggling to access even their core needs such as food and shelter. However, it would be fair to assume that the potential to develop patience may be positively impacted by more optimal living situation and conditions. If this is the case it is important that the more fortunate in society are aware of their advantages and strive to be more patient with those who are not and to recognise that every one of us is engaged in a lifelong process of learning and development .

In Shunmyo Masuno’s ‘Zen, The Art of Simple Living’, he writes about the Japanese saying; sottaku doji, which means ‘pecking simultaneously from the inside and out.’ It is taken from the process of a chick hatching from its egg, in which the chick has to peck at the shell from within whilst the parent bird pecks on the outside of the shell. It is a great analogy for the importance of patience and right timing and I agree with Masuno’s view that it is obvious how this relates to parenting or the acquisition of any skill or knowledge but I would extend this to any kind of relationship. We just have to be patient with each other and ourselves.

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