A test of patience

shopping-sqHappy Hanukkah. Happy Yule. Merry Christmas. Happy Kwanza. Happy Chinese New Year. No matter what you’re celebrating, or even if you’re not, December can be stressful.

By now we are in full preparation mode for the holidays. How we go about that preparation, though, is likely to have a significant impact on the way we view the season. Do we approach this time of year with patient endurance, staying focused on its deeper meaning? Or do we allow ourselves to be swept away by the frenetic and exhausting pace of all the trimmings? Let’s face it, the parties, decorating, shopping, social gatherings can test anyone’s patience. Patience is easy when everything is going our way. The true test of patience, though, is when things are not.

Early on in my relationship with my wife, I found myself facing the consequences of a lost holiday season. Ironically she was doing a musical version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We were living in Manhattan and she was commuting to Long Island where the show ran Wednesday to Sunday. Returning home on Sunday night, we would try to catch up on our lives in two days.

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I was working and still pursuing my own career, which further complicated things. Neither one of us that year were proclaiming “it’s a wonderful life.” In the midst of the chaos, we had lost all focus in our lives. We were being swept along by the momentum of madness that can accompany the season. The consequence of this became apparent on Christmas Eve. Neither one of us had done our holiday shopping.

At 6 p.m. on the 24th we walked through the doors of Macy’s in Herald Square. My wife said, “I’ll be on the first, fourth and seventh floors. Call me if you need to shop on any one of them.”

“OK, I’ll be on the second, third and eighth floors — stay clear of them,” I said. “Meet you back here at 9 o’clock when the store closes.”

Off we went in our separate directions, buzzing from one department to the next along with everyone else who had waited until the last minute to do their shopping.

People were grabbing items off the shelves before someone else could get to them. You had to stand to the right on the escalators because shoppers were running up and down between the floors. And finding a register with a short line was like hitting the lottery.

It looked like an episode of that old TV game show, “Supermarket Sweep,” in which contestants had a set amount of time to collect as many groceries as they possibly could. The winner was the person who had the most expensive grocery bill at check-out. There was absolutely no patience that evening. We were a shining example of commercialism and greed, the twin vices which do their best to pull us away from the true meaning of the season each year.

How do we stay focused on the meaning of the season? It has been said that the key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not smashing it. The farmer can’t speed up the seasons the crops need to grow. Likewise, we cannot speed up this or any other season. It would be wonderful if the entire world heeded those words, or those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.”

We cannot be in tune with the season until we slow down our lives. In our “wait-for-nothing” culture, we want everything now: the 4G connection, the quickest flight, the fastest food, you name it.

Recent surveys have studied the rise of anger in the world. What they have found is not surprising. The underlying cause for the rise of anger is not having one’s expectations and desires fulfilled fast enough. Thirty years ago you never heard the terms “road rage” or “in-flight violence.” We need to be patient enough to live one day — one moment — at a time, letting yesterday go and leaving tomorrow until it arrives.

Are people born with patience? Can patience be developed? We need to understand that our lack of patience is our own doing. We have the creative powers to become more patient. It’s not the circumstances of our lives that make us impatient, but how we react to them, and that is a choice. We must make it a priority to change our impatient habits.

How well do we listen? Are we driven to listen only for an opportunity to put in our own two cents? Have you ever had a conversation with someone who asks you how your week was? You get five seconds into your response when they interrupt you and then go on for 30 minutes telling you about every last detail of theirs. And to top it off, they finish by saying, “It’s been so great talking with you! Well, I better get running now.” Your first thought is, “Wow, I’m so glad you asked me about my week.”

Fortunately, there are a number of things which will stimulate patience.

The first thing we can do is find a place of inner peace, whether through nature, meditation or prayer. Patience thrives on inner peace, that spiritual place deep inside of us.

The second thing we can do is accept things the way they are in the world. That doesn’t mean that we should walk around our entire lives with a sense of passive defeat. Patience is by all means an active virtue, not a passive one. It is a spirit that endures life’s circumstances with an unquenchable sense of hope and optimism.

The third thing we need to work on is contentment with ourselves and the world around us. Until we are happy within, we cannot be patient with ourselves or the world around us. Does it mean that we will never face hardships? Absolutely not. However, put all these together and we can overcome the anxieties of December. This holiday season, or any other, we can let go of the external cravings and desires that generate feelings of impatience. And when we do, we will enjoy a much richer experience.

Rev. Terry O’Brien is pastor of the Saugerties Reformed Church.