When I was single and living alone, I considered myself a very patient person. Now that I’m married and living with pets, I am not nearly so patient. I often respond to my husband’s impatience — with impatience! The same is true with our newly adopted cats, who are the epitome of impatience, especially when it comes to food. They challenge my need for order and control.
I know I’m not alone. Our world is a highly impatient place. We want instant access on our digital devices and immediate responses to texts and emails. We expect everything to go quickly and smoothly – service at the drive-through, the check-out line in the grocery store, the morning commute (even though it’s rush hour), flights and connections at the airport.
Impatience comes from feeling like the next moment has more to offer than the present moment. It is a stress response to not getting our needs met in this moment. We ignore the fact that every moment is meaningful, even when it’s challenging (Caroline Myss, “The Experience of Being Illuminated,” 2015).
With patience, we can accept the delays, difficulties and annoyances of everyday life with greater equanimity. Patience makes us easier to get along with and more tolerant of others. It helps us become more spiritual, too. Every major religion sees patience as a way to know God (Judith Orloff, “The Power of Patience,” 2012). This is why the Dalai Lama published a book to teach us the necessity of Perfecting Patience (2018).
It’s one thing to know about patience and quite another to exercise patience, especially when others are involved. Fortunately, patience is an emotional skill that can be developed over time.
The first step is to practice mindfulness – to become aware of our thoughts, feelings and reactions. Spiritual teacher Carolyn Myss advises that we incorporate a short period of reflection into our daily routine to help us turn inward.
To begin, Myss suggests that we reflect on how we think about time. Impatience, after all, comes from living by the clock and allowing the passage of time to control our thoughts and feelings. Consider these questions from her article, “The Experience of Being Illuminated”:
- How does your impatience serve you? (Perhaps it gives you permission to dismiss people who challenge your beliefs, to ignore what you don’t want to do or think about, or to feel superior to others who are slower in body or mind.)
- How often during each day do you think about time? Why are you so time-motivated?
- How does your “time-thinking” contribute to your stress?
- Since time is a way of observing life passing before you, how do you want to spend the hours and days of your life? Do you want that time to be stress-filled?
These questions help us see that we are in charge of how we think about every moment, even the difficult ones. With this awareness, we can become more patient with ourselves and others.
Another way to practice mindfulness is to use it during situations that make us frustrated. When we are waiting in a long line at the Customer Service counter at Walmart, for example, we can stop and observe our thoughts.
Psychiatrist and UCLA professor Judith Orloff actually recommends that her therapy clients seek out places to stand in line. In her book Emotional Freedom (2010), she argues that waiting can be an emotionally freeing activity when we choose our thoughts carefully.
In the Walmart line, for example, instead of ruminating about the irritating customers with multiple returns or the slow cashier, we could say to ourselves, “I’m going to wait peacefully and enjoy the pause.” Then use the time to meditate, talk to other people in line, practice empathy for the cashier, or daydream and enjoy a break from the obligations of the day.
We can also develop patience by practicing gratitude.
In an article published by the Greater Good Sciences Center at U-C Berkeley, author Kira Newman uses science to prove that “good things come to those who wait.” Studies show that patient people have better mental and physical health, make better friends and neighbors, exert more effort toward achieving their goals, and are more content with life in general.
One proven way to increase these benefits is to practice gratitude – to notice and appreciate what we have and what is going well in our lives. Newman concludes, “If we’re thankful for what we have today, we’re not desperate for more stuff or better circumstances tomorrow” (“Four Reasons to Cultivate Patience,” 2016).
Bringing it Home
Lately, I have been practicing these techniques in my own life.
The other day, when we were sitting at a red light and my husband was fuming about the slow response-time of the other drivers, instead of trying to talk him out of his feelings, I turned inward to observe my thoughts: “I can’t believe he’s doing this again! Every single red light makes him mad. Doesn’t he know he can’t control the other drivers? He’s just making me feel bad.” I became anxious, and my shoulder muscles tensed into a knot. So I worked on changing my thoughts: “Wow, look at all the traffic. I wonder where everyone is going? I’m glad Tim is driving and not me. We haven’t been out for dinner in a while. What a treat!” It was kind of fun, and I felt better immediately.
I’m using slightly different techniques with my newly adopted shelter cats, Maysie and Zoey. They are three and a half years old and have developed a bad habit. They behave like wild animals at meal time. They meow loudly, bounce off the counters (despite my urgent “Down!”) and run helter-skelter around, under and over each other. When I put their bowls down, they wolf their food and then rush to the other’s bowl to get what’s left. It’s a feeding frenzy that I find very stressful.
So I’m trying to practice gratitude and compassion (as well as behavior modification techniques, including smaller, more frequent feedings).
I am grateful to have the resources to adopt two grown cats and to have the time to work with them. I am grateful to have a husband who already loves them as much as I do. And I’m grateful for their many good qualities. They are sweet, affectionate, smart, resourceful, and resilient. They play well together and look out for each other.
I also remind myself that these cats have every reason to be anxious. When released to the shelter, they had been living in a hoarding situation with 16 other cats competing for a limited supply of food. At the shelter, they lived in a room with two older, more assertive cats who ate from their bowls if they left anything. As a result, Maysie, who is the shy one, is at least two pounds under-weight.
But I am confident that in time, with love, compassion, and consistency, they will learn that food in their new home comes regularly and in plentiful supply, along with lots of interactive play, lap time, and quiet naps in cozy places.
When they learn to trust that their needs will be met, they will become less anxious and more patient. And so will I.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.