The Wisdom of Patience

Chalice lighting

The days are shorter now
The nights are longer
The temperatures are lower
But true light and warmth come not from the sun
They come from hearts held in community
And warmed by the radiance of love
May this flame remind us that we have it in our power
To bring light and warmth to any life
Including our own

From The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood

Water does not resist. Water flows.
When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress.
Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you.
But water always goes where it wants to go,
And nothing in the end can stand against it.
Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone.
Remember that, my child.
Remember you are half water.
If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it.
Water does.

From a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

[T]he field of psychology [has] given us a great word. It is the word 'maladjusted'. [...] It is a good word; certainly it is good that in dealing with what the word implies you are declaring that destructive maladjustment should be destroyed. You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.

But on the other hand, I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.


Last week, I was away visiting family in the United States. It was that very complicated American holiday called Thanksgiving, which - to be fair - is not usually characterised by much gratitude. Part of getting our family together was driving from Washington DC to New York and back. That four and a half hour drive actually turned out to be an eight-hour drive one way and nearly that on the way back.

Our topic is patience. Traffic. Patience. Pain from sitting in one position for so long. Patience. Other drivers cutting us off and failing to stay in their own lanes. Patience. When reference letters have been written about me - when people have praised me - one word they rarely use is patience…. Unless of course they are saying ‘Andy doesn’t have much of it.’

Today is the first day of the Christian season of Advent. Advent begins the 4th Sunday before Christmas. It is not just a time for buying advent calendars, although those have now crossed well out of the religious world into the secular with cute calendars for children, calendars with a chocolate a day, calendars with a different kind of beer or liquor each day, and many more. There are even Advent calendars for dogs.

This is a pretty far cry from the original significance for Christians. Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation - a time of patience. It is a time for marking the coming of their saviour - Jesus of Nazareth. They remember his coming in the past and wait for him to return in the future. In this way, Advent recalls the age-old longing of the Jewish people for a messiah - a saviour - a great human king who would bring liberation to a people who had so long been subjugated by one great power after another.

The message that can be conveyed by Advent is ‘Be patient. Don’t fret. The saviour is coming. Everything will be OK.’ In that sense, I am not big on patience. Should slaves and other abolitionists have been more patient for an end to slavery? Should Britain have been more patient with Nazi Germany? Should LGBT people have been more patient in waiting for equal rights? Should we be patient with an American president who posts videos online that incite violence against Muslims? Should we be patient about the growing carbon emissions that are on track to turn our world into an unlivable place for our children?

I suspect that your answer to each of these questions will be no. For those of us who do not believe that a saviour will come to fix things for us, patient waiting is not a sufficient answer to the oppressions and other horrors of our world. We can’t sit around and wait for something to just happen. We can’t allow ourselves to become adjusted to what is wrong in the world. Martin Luther King said we must be maladjusted to the evils of our world. The great tradition of this congregation is to challenge the status quo when it is wrong - not to accept or adjust or be patient to the point of passivity.

The problems of our world require our action. Passivity is not just doing nothing. It is not neutral. It aids those who oppress or destroy. As Albert Einstein put it, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” If there is no saviour coming, then we must be the saviours. It is we who must right the wrongs and combat the evils and put a stop to the wanton destruction around us.

So, I hope you weren’t planning anything for the next week because world saving could take… maybe days… even weeks…  But patience is not to be sneered at. Just because passivity in the face of oppression or destruction is wrong, it is not true that any one of us or even many of us together can wipe out every evil. It is also not true that there is no place for patience.

In my long, tedious drives last week I was remarkably patient. I wasn’t aggravated by the traffic. I didn’t get angry about the aggressive drivers. I didn’t even make a big fuss about the growing pain in my right leg. These are at least two kinds of patience. The first is more like equanimity. The traffic just is. The pain just is. Refuse to accept it and you will feel anger, frustration, and rail against something you cannot change. Accept it and you may be at peace.

The second - patience in the face of provocation - is more like forbearance. I could have blared my horn at someone driving badly. I could have flashed my lights or got aggressive in return. It would have done nothing to improve the situation and could easily have made things worse. There is wisdom in forbearance and equanimity when there is nothing you can do to make a difference.

The serenity prayer spoken regularly in 12-step meetings asks for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. There is something important missing in those words and that something is the recognition that some things can be changed - just not quickly. What is needed then is a different kind of patience: Strategic patience.

Because I can’t change something now does not mean I can’t change it tomorrow. Because I can’t change it now does not mean that we can’t change it if we join forces. It does not mean that there is nothing at all we can do. We can change almost anything given enough passion, and resources, and time. The need for time is where patience comes in.

In today’s world, we have a tendency to expect immediate solutions. If we look at how advertisers pitch to us, it’s all about immediate results. Learn a language in a month. Get a leaner body in two weeks. Learn to play the piano the easy way. Increase your website traffic tenfold with our magical software solution. Buy this car or bag or coat or phone and you will be happy - immediately.

This instant solution perspective on the world can be found in our activism too. We are quick to join a demo - quick to be angry - quick to sign a petition - but the effort often ends when the immediate passion does. It is far more tempting to jump into the next big issue with another quick action than it is to do the long, slow, step-by-step work that leads so large-scale change.

In the real world, change takes time. Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill. Chattel slavery took centuries to end. Slavery is still with us today. The civil rights struggle that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of is not completed yet. Mary Wollstonecraft’s bold declaration that women and men should be equals is a struggle we continue to face.

Strategic patience is about taking the long view - an outlook that recognises that we are working not only for our own rights but for those of future generations here and everywhere. It is an outlook that allows us to plant trees knowing that those who come after us will luxuriate in their shade and savour their fruit. Strategic patience is the patience of water which, as Margaret Atwood describes, will wear through stone, given enough time.

Let’s save the world. It will not happen tomorrow but it has started and it is for us to continue. As we have been given freedom from those who came before, we will be saviours for those who come after. Be patient, my friends, with the evils of this world: actively and strategically patient. We are the saviours of tomorrow’s world.

May it be so.

Closing Words

May we be passionate and patient
Saviours who take the long view
Saving the world of tomorrow
With the passion of fire
And the perseverance of water