Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is Patience Out of Style?

     When I was a child, jumpy with impatience, adults around me offered me this:
Patience is a virtue, 
possess it if you can; 
seldom found in woman, 
never found in man.

    It was unsatisfactory, as answers go. For one thing, what possible bearing did such a verse have on the fact that there were still more than 20 days until Christmas, or two more hours until my birthday party? And this patience and virtue stuff? I was having none of it.
     As I grew older, however, I began to see the benefits of patience. As one early example, on the day of our much-anticipated senior prom I learned that what is savored in anticipation is beyond delicious once it finally arrives. 
     For another, I experienced the merit in discipline, since discipline is the quality a person develops while learning to be patient. Also, and certainly not least of all, I came to realize how little control I had over anything in the universe but myself. Impatience began to feel like something I was doing to myself as a punishment for not having supernatural powers.
     "You can't hurry love." No, the fact is that you can't hurry anything. The only thing you can influence is your own experience of waiting for the desired moment to arrive.
     Frustrating? It can be. It feels like waiting, and waiting is about the most passive undertaking known to man (next to watching paint dry). But Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton, British politician, poet, critic and novelist (1803-1873) viewed it this way: "Patience is not passive; on the contrary, it is active; it is concentrated strength."
     I have come to agree with him.
     In this media-widened world, when everything happens everywhere to everyone at the same time, and time itself seems to accelerate at the speed of tweets, patience becomes the name we give the anxiety we experience when a page is slow to load. Or a traffic light seems stuck on red. Or The Bachelor has only one more red rose to deliver.
     Now I could go way off the deep end here and bring up The Patience of Job, but I'll skip the dramatics and move instead in the middle ground, where we actually live. You know the place. This is where college applications take eons to garner a response. Where it takes forever to find a job. Where the chemotherapy seems stalled: is it working or not?
     This is the realm of patience. And, unfortunately, our skills in this area are diminished by the rapid-fire access we have to almost everything we could ever want. We have less need to practice patience in our lives today, so when we are called upon to do so we are petulant, rusty.
     John Lennon said that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. I would amend his wisdom to include a corollary: life is also what happens when you're fretting yourself into a frenzy of impatience with the fact that you, mighty human, cannot change the speed of time.
     And this the silver lining: you can create the way you experience the passage of time. As Bulwer-Lytton suggests, you can be conscious of doing other things, and develop strength of character by occupying your mind and energy in productive ways. You'll notice that time will pass without your assistance, and eventually your period for impatience will also have passed, without its usual handmaidens, Frustration and Anxiety. Because you've been busy doing other things, things you truly enjoy doing, your experience of time might actually speed up, which is the basis of the book Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You get to the finish line faster if you're not looking at it. This is akin to not watching a pot as it boils. Go fix the salad greens instead, and before you know it, the kettle will sing.
     Patience may be a virtue. It may not be. But I can tell you this for certain: patience is your friend. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Do You Only See What You Expect to See?

     Evolutionary biologists call it Observational Bias, and they tell us it is a good thing. When they mean is that over the course of human history, we have learned to distinguish dangerous from non-dangerous people and objects in our environment based on a minimal amount of information, and to respond appropriately. Our reactions are fight, flight, or freeze, depending on the assessment we make in the few seconds we allot to the process.
     This may be fascinating, as far as evolutionary biology goes. But what about your daily life? What about the things you see around you today, this minute, and the conclusions you draw from them? Can you see how today they might just as likely to be wrong as right?
      It's simple, really: our environment is more complex than it was when these traits were set down. Our neural pathways haven't had the time to catch up with that complexity. We are likely to make false assumptions, based on information that doesn't apply to the situation at hand.
     For example, our cave-dwelling ancestors would have been justified to fear a neighbor's insistence on settling an argument with a raised axe. But are we justified in assuming we know just as surely what a person intends today?
     Someone makes a statement in a meeting that rankles you. You bristle, and take it personally, and make a mental note that this particular co-worker has it in for you. In your next interaction with this person, you ignore her, but not without first casting one of those looks you've mastered specifically to wither all viewers.
     Well, for example, what you didn't know is that your co-worker was suffering with a migraine during that first meeting and could barely think straight. You made a mistake. You saw rancor where there was none. You saw what you expected to see; you didn't have a clue what was really going on. And now look at the mess you have on your hands, as your coworker starts to treat you like the jerk your behavior suggests that you are.
      We all do it. We all cause ourselves problems and sometimes even real misery when we don't keep an open mind about the intentions of another person. The best way to avoid cruising down this slippery slope is simple, but not necessarily easy. It's something you've heard all your life.
     If you are not sure you understand something, seek clarification. Ask! You're more likely to create harmony in your life by asking too many questions than you are by making assumptions that turn out to be baseless.
      Your mother, your Aunt Martha, and that pastor from summer camp? They all had it right. And more often than not, they incorporated one variation or another of the Golden Rule, just to underscore their point. There's nothing like an appeal to a higher authority to validate your position. That Golden Rule really does come in handy. All we have to do is remember to apply it.