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  • Writer's pictureLaura Burke - Coach

Is patience a virtue?

Patience is one of twelve virtues, according to Aristotle. It’s not one of the seven heavenly virtues in the Bible, nor one of the three primary virtues defined by Adam Smith in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yet “Patience is a virtue” may be the only common phrase about a virtue. It dates back to a poem called Piers Plowman by William Langland (mid-14th century), with origins as far back as the 3rd or 4th century in the Latin textbook The Distichs of Cato. The Bible is the only reference I’m actually familiar with here, the rest I just learned while looking into this phrase.

Merriam-Webster defines patience (n) as “the capacity, habit, or fact of being patient” (don’t you just love when a word is defined by another version of itself??) and defines patient (adj) as “1: bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint; 2: manifesting forbearance under provocation or strain; 3: not hasty or impetuous; 4: steadfast despite opposition, difficulty, or adversity.” Mostly – the definitions talk about patience being about enduring negative circumstances.

Merriam-Webster defines virtue (n) as “1a: conformity to a standard of right : MORALITY; b: a particular moral excellence; 2: a beneficial quality or power of a thing; 3: manly strength or courage : VALOR; 4: a commendable quality or trait : MERIT; 5: a capacity to act : POTENCY; 6: chastity especially in a woman.” Mostly – virtue is a very good thing (although I’m a bit surprised by the lingering gender bias in definitions #3 and #6).

So, taken at face value, “Patience is a virtue” basically means that simply enduring negative circumstances without complaint makes you a good person. Does it? The phrase doesn’t even imply that your patience will actually result in anything good! At least the related phrase “Good things come to those who wait” specifically says that there is a reward, although it doesn’t say anything about the state of the person waiting, and perhaps waiting impatiently or grumpy is fine as long as you wait?

There are lots of quote that define patience in various ways, some tweak the dictionary definition and others give it an entirely new meaning. The commonality is that patience involves waiting, taking things slowly. At surface level, waiting is in direct opposition to my typical ‘take action’ approach. “Set goals and go after them!” I usually say. How, then, does patience factor in and how do you know when to pause?

Our world is very fast today. Microwaves cook food in minutes – seconds even. Satellites enable messages to be transmitted nearly instantaneously across the globe. Your favorite search engine gives you answers to any question before you’ve even finished asking it. With everything moving so fast – how do we slow down, to wait?

Patience is the yin to the action-oriented yang. The two are meant to go together, balance each other. If you never take action you’ll never get anywhere. If you only take action and never pause, you will be exhausted and will likely be pushing unnecessarily against forces that may be immovable.

Patience is the ability to accept divine timing – that things happen how and when they are supposed to. If you believe in a higher power, regardless of the name you ascribe to it/him/her, you likely believe that things work out according to a plan we are not always in on. Things may not work out the way we want them to, they make take longer than we thought. Struggling against this or being angry or frustrated doesn’t typically get us much.

Patience is the ability to quiet the mind and listen for what is meant to be – rather than what you want. To look for the lessons and accept that you don’t always know everything.

Patience is the gift of embracing anticipation, letting excitement builds as you look forward to something. It’s the act of focusing on the journey rather than just the destination.

Knowing when to push and when to pause is more of an art than a science.

What are some signs that it may serve you to take your foot off the gas pedal? When things feel harder than you think they should be. There’s a big difference between working hard and things being hard. When there is nothing you can do to make something happen any sooner. Like having a baby – some things just take time. When you feel an uneasy queasy in your stomach like something is forced. It can help to take a time-out and regroup.

I don’t think I’d say patience – by strict definition – is a virtue. But I do believe that patience – by my definitions – is vital. So yes, push for your goals, work hard, go after what you want. But have patience to wait, to accept, to go slow. Have patience with the world as it is slow to come out of the COVID-paradigm. Have patience with traffic (even though there is really no explanation for traffic right now!). Have patience with family, friends and strangers. And most importantly have patience with yourself.



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