“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.” – Paulo Coehlo –
I often wonder how much of what I call “Patience” is simply me avoiding a decision that I do not want to make? Calling my avoidance-crisis patience has such a pleasant, self-deluding ring to it, doesn’t it? On the other hand, how many of you, like me, have found yourselves in less than favourable circumstances because the idea of waiting patiently was not a comforting option – so you jumped too soon? How do we know the difference between these two “P’s”?
Patience has often been called a virtue. It is the ability to wait for things, accepting our lack of control over our world. In an age of immediate gratification and super-fast technology, patience often has no value or meaning in our lives. We would rather have fulfillment, stuff, money, and all kinds of others things NOW than wait and receive a little more later. It’s called “present bias.” Present bias is the tendency to over-value immediate rewards at the expense of our long-term intentions. We prefer to eat the seed, instead of waiting for it to grow. We live in a culture that suffers from present bias and unless we recognise how this has affected us, we will never understand the virtue of Patience or the sacrament of Waiting.
Procrastination, even though it can be so beautifully dressed up in a patience camouflage, is not a virtue. It simply is avoiding what needs to be done. All of us struggle with delaying and avoiding on important issues. Strangely enough, IMpatience and procrastination both have to do with present bias or what behavioral psychology calls “time inconsistency”. In the case of procrastination, we put things off because we value the immediate gratification of having ‘no pain’ more highly than doing what we need to do, which often involves feeling pain for a moment but it can change our future. For example, we would like to lose weight but we procrastinate because five donuts and a can of coke keep ambushing us at 10 am and 3 pm every day. It’s too painful to say no to them. So, we procrastinate.
Underneath all of our impatience or procrastination issues lies a very common human trait – fear! Anxiety feeds both of these gremlins. We may never have articulated our angst of what it means to live as vulnerable humans in a world that we have very little control over but it can still take its toll by manifesting itself through anxiety, depression, anger, etc. We all try to drown out that reality in many different ways. Some use harmful substances, some drown themselves in work, some turn to religion or philosophy or accumulating stuff or … do nothing – immobilised by the whole caboodle. We all have to face the many ways we cope with this fear of lack of control, and how these coping mechanisms have made us all addicts. Acknowledging this is the first step to living a more peaceful, integrated life. Know thyself.
Practicing mindfulness can be so helpful. Instead of rushing through your day, practice being present, practice breathing, practice listening – just be. Instead of being impatient when you have to wait, consider changing how you perceive ‘waiting’. Waiting can be a holy moment, a sacrament. While you wait, be present, even if that is painful. Waiting is part of the rhythm of life. You see it in the winter seasons when everything seems dead … waiting for new life. Your 24 hour day should at least have about 8 hours of sleep … sleep is you waiting for your body to rest and recover.
Perhaps you feel overwhelmed with life and this sense has almost immobilised you. You keep calling it waiting or patience but deep inside you know that you are simply putting off a difficult task(s). Procrastination can become a habit. To change a habit, we need to rewire our brain! We need to break out of the rut. The Ivy Lee Method may be of some assistance. It has been successfully applied in various contexts since 1918. Just a little word of warning: sometimes we go through ‘wobbly’ seasons, seasons of grief, disappointment, etc. As we surface from the valley and begin to take life by the horns again, writing down six tasks, as Ivy Lee recommends, may be too much. Instead, start with two, then add another one every week. Step by step you are, what Richard Rohr would say, “living yourself into a new way of thinking.”
So, dear friend, on this journey of life – know thyself. The answer in discovering the difference between patience and procrastination is in our motivation. If we are putting things off that we know we need to do because of fear, then we may be procrastinating (please note, our fear can be directly related to our safety and well-being – I encourage you to seek help and counsel if this is the case). Procrastination always ends with regret. However, I may also be putting things off because I know I have done what needs to be done, there is no more I can do, now I wait patiently. This sort of waiting, although it may be painful, is calm and rational. Know the difference. Take courage.
“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.” Anne Frank