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the burden of patience

06/28/2020 03:03:24 PM


The other day I walked along the Peekskill waterfront, sweating under my face mask. A young woman jogged past me. She was about two feet away, breathing heavily. She was not wearing a mask.

The sight startled me, though it probably shouldn’t have. This mask-less runner was not an anomaly.

I have heard similar experiences from others. Many of us have seen the footage and the photos of crowded beaches and pools, informal graduation celebrations, outdoor bars with young people standing close to each other – without masks.

Too many Americans are impatient with the restrictions and the masks and the physical distancing. We want to get back to our “normal” life. That is natural. This is hard.

Americans have never been known for our patience. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic bring out our impatience. Such impatience can be dangerous. This danger is evident and obvious: Just look at the rising number and rate of coronavirus infections in states that opened up quickly because people were impatient to get back to normal.

Impatience can be dangerous. The Torah tells a story (Numbers 16) of a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God loses his patience with the rebels and their followers. Twice in the story, God threatens to annihilate large groups of people. According to the Torah’s count, nearly 15,000 die when God loses his temper.

This story illustrates perfectly the Chinese proverb: “One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience can ruin a whole life.”

I find it interesting that in the Torah’s story, even God runs out of patience. That is because patience is difficult.

The Hebrew word for patience reflects this truth. The word is savlanut. It comes from the Hebrew root that means to carry a load or a burden.

Think about that image for a moment. Carrying a burden requires strength. Patience is a form of strength.

Just as working out makes you physically stronger, so does patience require cultivation. Patience does not come naturally. Babies and young children must learn to be patient. And we adults – especially in this impatient American culture – must “work out” our patience muscle by exercising it. We have to practice our patience.

Exercising our patience is hard, but it is ultimately good for our character and for our mental health.

Patience is an expression of humility, of the recognition that we are not in control. We cannot control other people or how they act. We are setting ourselves up for misery if we believe that we can.

These days we feel acutely the reality that so much in our lives is out of control. But we can control how we react to others. And that’s where cultivating our patience, working out our “patience muscle” comes into play.

Patience is strength. But patience does not mean inaction. It does not mean just sucking it up and keeping our mouth shut. There are times when we should take action. If someone without a mask gets too close to us and exposes us to danger, we cannot remain silent. But if we root our words and our actions in patience and not in anger, we will be stronger and more effective in addressing what we must address.

I know I get defensive when someone loses patience with me. When I am defensive, I am less likely to listen and far less likely to change.

If I had cursed or yelled at the young woman who ran too close to me without wearing a mask, would that have been effective? Probably not.

It might have been more effective to point to my own mask and say with concern, “please stay safe.” Or I could have thanked those who were wearing masks in a voice loud enough for the mask-less runner to hear.

This is a time for patience. We do not want the virus to wreak more havoc. So we must be patient with the restrictions that we have.

Patience – savlanut – is a burden. But it is also a sign of strength, and a foundation for effective action. I know we will have many opportunities to work out our “patience muscle” in the weeks ahead, and I have faith that we will rise to that challenge.




Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782