We are a stunningly impatient culture...a fact that has been reflected in a lot of poor choices that have compromised the environment, the economy, the human potential of our country, and many of the democratic ideals that America is based upon. When decisions are made in haste, they often result in what the teabag aphorism promises. Waste. How many times have you gone down the garden path only to wonder later, "What could I have been thinking?"
I, too, am frequently impatient. As a result, I've had more than my share of relationships (thankfully I've finally found a true soul mate), and made a stunning array of career and financial gaffes. All that is slowly changing because of a lesson that James, a friend who died of AIDS, inadvertently taught me.
One day near the end of his life I was watering his huge collection of indoor plants. The living room was dominated by an ancient Christmas cactus, whose copious blooms were pretty well spent. As they fade the blossoms close, and then they hang there, all limp and droopy. After a few days, they get as dry as rice paper and finally fall off. If you have a big plant, the dead flowers can make a daily mess for quite a while. Thinking I'd spare him the effort of crawling around on his hands and knees and picking up the debris, I began to pinch off the dying flowers to minimize his clean up.
James came over and put his hand gently on my arm. "Joanie," he said, "everything has its own destiny. People, trees, plants, clothes, even stones. And the cycle isn't done for these flowers yet. I know they're kind of ratty looking and that they've passed their peak. But please, let them finish life on their own timetable. I'm happy to pick them up off the floor."
I watched the flowers fall over the next few days. Indeed, there was a special beauty in their final transformation from living tissue to fragile, papery phantoms. There was a profound rightness about the moment when they let go and fluttered down. I picked up the papery husks and lay them outside under a hedge, where they could go back to the earth again. Instead of viewing the dying blossoms as a mess-in-the-making that had to be nipped in the fading bud, James had helped me see more deeply and patiently into their essence.
But I am still not a very patient person. It's a practice that takes constant awareness and commitment. Even after James's lesson in letting life unfold through its full cycle, sometimes I still want to rush people in conversation, curse at the traffic, and hurry through a fine meal. I still find myself greedily taking on new projects, heedless to the fact that ongoing ones might be compromised. There is only so much time and energy, and discerning where to put it requires real patience. So I've learned to wait a bit...to let things "season" as the Quakers put it. Is my decision coming from fear, obligation, or greed...or can I feel that inner sense of the road opening before me, that sense of rightness that I've come to recognize as authentic inner guidance? If I wait for an hour, a day, a week, a month, do I still feel that rightness? What I've learned is that patience doesn't usually result in missing the boat. If an opportunity passes me by because of the time I take to sense whether or not it feels right, I've come to believe that it wasn't meant for me, at least at that time. If it is right, it often cycles back around, and gives me another shot at discernment.
Real patience requires the willingness to let life unfold at its own pace and reveal itself to you. This willingness, in turn, requires mindfulness. If you are present to the fading blossoms as they are, there's a subtle beauty in their dying that is no less engaging than in their opening. The beauty is not so much in the flower as in your relationship to it. That which we have truly known and loved in all its phases is more precious still as it fades away. The same was true of James. He was as beautiful in his dying as he was at the height of his power.
His lesson is that patience is an opportunity to love deeply, to recognize what's precious, and to let that be your guide. This week, notice the times that you are impatient. What's the hurry? What will you gain by leaping out of the tub two minutes faster, rather than savoring the way your muscles start to relax? Think about what you'll lose by rushing your loved one in conversation, speaking in anger rather than taking the time to cool down, taking on one project too many, or making a decision before it has had the chance to season. Identify one area where you tend to lose patience, and try giving it your full, mindful attention until it reveals itself to you at a whole new level.