Patience is a virtue.
Virtue is a grace.
Grace is a little girl who never washed her face.
If I ranked the high points in my life, this wouldn’t be the top. It’s not an Oscar moment, or an exciting anecdote to tell the grandchildren. But it’s a slice of time that tells a tale.
I’ve been limbering up my green fingers in Lockdown. Buying packets of seeds to grow vegetables. It seemed relatively easy. After a short while I was churning out seedlings — courgette, beetroot, carrot, green bean, coriander and basil.
Assorted terracotta pots now fill our small garden. It’s not a slick enterprise. Sticks, string and all manner of household items prop up the plants. Real gardeners will suck through their teeth and shake their heads.
Despite my early success I had one tray of seeds that did absolutely nothing. I treated it with the same care, but where the others took off, this one sat indolently on the windowsill. I watered and turned it diligently. I even talked to my tray of soil.
After weeks of concentrated effort what do you think emerged? Nada. Nichts. Niente.
I was tempted to ditch the muddy box. But life was busy and instead it sat forgotten, slowly drying out. And that could have been the end of it, but an aeon later one single green shoot appeared. It poked its head up above the soil and over a few days climbed towards the sun, its companions still sleeping or just dead.*
Leaving it alone did the trick. Not something I excel at, as patience isn’t usually mine to give. But in Lockdown it’s something I’ve had to learn. I’m not alone. These past months have been an exercise in forbearance for us all.
The problem is that in our “modern” world we’ve lost the art of patience — we want the upper hand in life. We want to bend things to our needs. To will something into being with the power of our minds. That said, it can be possible, with a credit card and an online shop.
“Maxima enim, patientia virtus” (Patience is the greatest virtue)
In our “modern” world we just can’t wait. We want it all now. Yet patience has been held as a virtue for centuries. It’s not clear when the expression “patience is a virtue” was first used. Some say Cato the Elder, a Roman Solider and historian in third or fourth century Italy. Others think it’s the English poet William Langland in the 1300s, in his story of Piers Plowman.
“Pacience is an heigh vertu, certeyn” (Patience is a high virtue, certainly)
This one is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, also written in the 1300s. Maybe the 1300s was the century of Peak Patience?
The Franklin’s Tale is recounted by a wealthy gentleman farmer. It’s a story of morality. Of love, patience and change. Chaucer says that patience isn’t gritting our teeth or holding our breath until something passes. And since change is inevitable, patience is at the heart of transformation. It’s a constant readiness to step up and meet the world, knowing that change is endless in our lives.
Someone once told me that my impatience would stop me growing. I used to assess progress by (metaphorically) pulling the plant out of the pot, checking to see whether the roots were growing. But all I did was kill it.
We find it hard to hand over control to someone or something else. We want to be in the driving seat. We think we need to motor forward. But need and want are different things. What we really need is to let things go.
It’s easy to understand why this is a challenge. We’re hard wired for movement. In my Spoon by Spoon interview, Zee talked about “a desperate urge to act” in her life. “I just think: take action, be proactive, build that yourself. And don’t wait for the opportunity to come for you.”
Nick hates to wait too, “I always want stuff to progress right away. I want to take action. I want to roll my sleeves up and make things happen. If you say, ‘well it will eventually in its own sweet time,’ then I’m gritting my teeth and saying, ‘yes but what can I do?’” He is trying to work on this by telling himself, “Time is an important factor in figuring these things out. If I can just relax and let it happen, it will.“
There’s a disconnect between high expectations, our burning need for change, and the reality of life. And sometimes that can tip us into violence. Sara was on a career change course, but it made her feel worse. “I’ve actually been quite angry. I think there’s been a lot of frustration because you have this idea that after the eight weeks, you’re going to have a new career. I felt frustrated in my own expectations.” This boiled over when she started, “Throwing things out of frustration, rather than actually trying to beat anyone up. I went to seek help from a therapist, because something wasn’t right.”
The art of patience goes hand in hand with acceptance. We need to acknowledge our situation. Accept that most of life is not in our control. It can be really liberating to let go of the struggle. David agrees: “I’ve learned the cathartic experience of ‘Fuck it.’ It doesn’t really matter. Something good might come of it. Follow the dreams. Follow the stars. Follow the fairy lights.”
It’s from a place of patience, of letting go, that our lives really take off.
*Two days later I decided to give up on the tray of seeds. I was going to re-home the seedling and chuck out the rest. Clearly all the others were dead. When I came down in the morning and pulled up the blind, lo and behold, one more was breaking through the soil. So, note to self: “It ain’t over till the fat seedling sings.”
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’m running interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. Each week I’ll share the themes — how they are getting back on track and the wisdom they are developing as they work their way through.
Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan