Herr Nels, the hotel keeper who wore an imperial in the style of Napoleon III, and who had lived in Lorraine, told me he remembered when all men wore their hair long and that it was only the Prussians who had their hair cropped short. He said he was very pleased that Paris was again returning to this fashion. At the barber shop where I went the barber was very particular to try and get the fashion correct and took a great interest. He had seen it in Italian illustrated papers, he said. Not everyone could wear it, he said, but he was glad to see it coming back. He thought it was a revolt against the years of war. A sound and good thing.

Later he told me several of the other young men of the village were having their hair cut in the same style although it did not show to any great advantage yet. Could he ask how long mine had been growing?

“About three months.”

“Then they must be patient. They all wish it to grow below the ears over night.”

“It takes patience,” I said.

“And when will yours be the length the mode requires?”

“In six months, who knows exactly?”

A Movable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Whether it is waiting for hair to grow, finding that special someone, or finally getting that promotion, the world seems to find ways to test our patience. When we want something, we tend to want it as quickly as possible. We don’t say, “I really want this thing now but I think I’ll make myself wait for it.” This is why most of us are reluctantly patient, if at all.

All of us have moments when we must perform through pain, deal with delays, or sit through suffering. Because life doesn’t let us skip out on its unpleasantries, we must choose to be patient or allow ourselves to be angry, frustrated, restless, or annoyed. It is impatience that piles angst on top of hardship. It is patience that protects us from misery while we wait for those things that will only come to us in time.

The Patient Mind

Patience comes from a state of mind that we can teach ourselves to enter into. John Adams, in a letter that he wrote to his wife, Abigail, three months prior to becoming President of the United States, said “I have had a good education to patience in public affairs, and can look at a storm with some composure. The approaching one looks black and thick enough: but I have confidence in the sense, spirit and resources of this country, which few other men in the world know so well…” President Adams had learned to adopt a patient mind. Because of this, he was able to face troubles with “composure” and “confidence” at a time when his country’s stability and security were far from assured. Instead of dwelling on the approaching storm, his patience led Adams to focus on the strengths of the land that he loved and the people he served. Without patience, he would not have been able to take on the gargantuan task of leading a nation with the poise and conviction his position required.

Becoming Patient

In a perfect world, we would be born with patience. We would naturally remain calm when things don’t go our way. We would see the unknown as an opportunity to learn instead of a reason to panic. Coming across someone with a differing point of view would make us curious instead of frustrated. For many of us, even though we admit that patience is a virtue, we struggle to overcome our natural tendency to be impatient. Therefore, we need to learn how to think, behave, and manage our emotions in ways that transform us into patient people.

When we are being patient, our inner monologue sounds something like:

  • I really want that right now but I know that it will take some time to get it.
  • If I am going to reach my goal, I need to focus more on what I can change than on what is outside of my control.
  • Others do not define my worth, my values and work ethic do. I am a whole and valuable person whether the world recognizes it or not.
  • I am going to work as hard as I can no matter how discouraged I may be.

Failure, Adversity, Patience, and Greatness

Last night, I had the opportunity to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin speak. She is one of my favorite authors, so I was very excited. She talked about what she has learned over decades spent researching and writing about presidents Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and Johnson. One of the themes of her talk (and also a theme in her writing) is that all of these great leaders had to overcome adversity numerous times over the course of their lives. Patience was one of the virtues that helped these men endure.

President Lincoln is one of the more powerful examples of someone whose patience and will were tested in a difficult life. He grew up in poverty; his first love died, as did two of his children; he lost two elections for U.S. Senate; his wife suffered long bouts of depression and mental unrest; and he served as president during the bloodiest, most horrific years in the nation’s history. I can only imagine the patience it took to live through this without breaking. If you read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, you will learn that he nearly did. Fortunately, Lincoln’s patience helped him stay the course and he carried his country out of the depths of self-destruction. He is an example for us all.