The Secret to Having Patience
September 16, 2013
Is there such a thing as a bok choy emergency? Seriously, I was in a grocery store, perusing the eggplant and the oddly shaped ginger roots, when a flustered woman elbowed me, “Excuse me, excuse me.” What is the matter? I asked. “I need to get through,” she said, breathlessly. She grabbed a bunch of bok choy and ran to the cashier. Living in a big city, instances of impatience are routine. Don’t these people realize that impatience is the fastest route to a heart attack. I should know. Impatience increases blood pressure, the body is flooded with adrenalin, the day’s pent-up aggression acts out during dreams and one wakes without feeling refreshed.
One could make excuses, the woman may be in a hurry because she has something pressing waiting for her home, though I think impatience is ultimately just habitual. It is ironic that bed-ridden people in hospitals are called patients. Though they have no where to go and nothing to do, the nurses will tell you they are routinely anything but patient.
So what to do? Well this guy walks into his psychiatrist’s office and says, “Doctor, I need to learn patience, and I need it fast.” It is an old joke, I know, but still relevant. We know impatience is not good for us, but we don’t have the patience to cultivate patience. Catch-22 anyone?
In my own struggle with cultivating patience I have found an unlikely ally in calligraphy. Beautiful penmanship cannot be hurried and in cultivating it, one figures out a thing or two about how to acquire beautiful patience. Calligraphy requires careful precision as well as elegance with each minute hand movement. It is the most unforgiving art I have ever practiced. Pencils and charcoals can be erased or smudged over. Stitching can be undone. Clay can be reformed. But misspell ‘then’ for ‘than’ with ink and the whole parchment is useless. In other words, patience is not an option, it is a prerequisite.
I fell in love with calligraphy when I attended an exhibition of Renaissance Art at my local gallery. On display were dozens of 15th century bibles, lovingly hand written by monk-scribes. Capitals were gilded and adorned with intricate drawings. Imagine writing out a whole bible without a single error! One couldn’t help but be in awe of the monk’s patience is executing these works.
I think it was the love and admiration for what is possible with ink and paper, as well the sheer joy I experience in this archaic art form, that has inspired me to cultivate the patience necessary to succeed in calligraphy. I now see that impatience is always a symptom of a lack of love. We hurry because we don’t like what we are doing and so want to get it over with as soon as possible. Perhaps that woman hated shopping, hence her frantic dash for the bok choy. Patients do not want to be sick and can’t wait to be home, hence they are impatient. So can the solution to impatience be to cultivate love in whatever you are doing?
Everyone has the capacity for patience. Everyone has infinite patience when they are doing what they love. But to simulate that when you are being packed into an over crowded subway train is no easy task, but it can be done. I used to find crowds stressful because I could not tolerate people’s thoughtlessness. Now I still notice the casual acts of stupidity but I try to see them as comedic, material for my fiction writing. This may not work for everyone, I know. Each person has to find his own excuse for making the stressful and unpleasant into a labor of love. But the key is being aware of this fact and giving it attention.
Another thing calligraphy has taught me is to temper my desire for perfection with the need to feel joy. Because when you are too focussed on perfection, it saps the joy out of any activity. This is as true for daily life as it is for calligraphy. We get stressed because people don’t behave as we believe they ought to, things don’t go according to our plans. The outcome is not what we imagined. So we either give up that activity, or we soldier on mechanically while watching the clock. This is how impatience becomes habitual, a way of life.
Calligraphy has taught me that while my inner critic is useful for learning and improvement, but at some point I need to silence him. When I look back at the paintings and drawings I did in my youth, I am astounded at the competence. But back then, all I ever saw in them was the imperfections, the mistakes. I am determined not to make the same mistake with calligraphy. Perfection comes with practice, and a lot of joy in the doing. I guess I’ll just have to be patient.