There is one of those famous experiments we have all seen summarized on the evening news: you stick a kid in a room and give him a marshmallow. Then you tell the kid he can have two marshmallows if he waits to eat the first. Leave the room and see if the kid can delay gratification. Apparently, those that can live happier lives, make more money, have cuter children, blah, blah, blah…
I often wonder how my patience would have stood up in this type of situation. I am a pretty big rule-follower, so I probably would have thought eating the sweet right away was against the rules. On the other hand, I have a devil of a sweet tooth, so I may have taken a nibble out of the bottom and tried to hide it.
In mindfulness, patience is more than just waiting for things to happen in their own time. Patience is also the willingness to accept the present moment fully and completely. To be here and not rushing to get to a better moment.
I learned this lesson painfully in the first few years after we bought our house. We were full of enthusiasm and had such plans for every room. Wood had to be refinished, shoddy craftsmanship from previous owners had to be ripped out, everything needed repainting. We would talk and talk and talk for hours about the transformations we envisioned. Home Depot became a shopping black hole that repeatedly showed up on our credit card balance.
I started to hate my house. Every room was a “To Do” list that never seemed to shrink. Projects were dirty and never got finished on time (eventually we came up with a reliable equation to plan for our project deadlines: start with the amount of time you think it will take, double it, then add two days). The house that we had closed on with so much joy was a burden, mocking me with its odd angles and hidden (and expensive) surprises behind every wall.
It didn’t happen right away, but over time I began to love my house for what it was. A bit dusty, a bit unfinished – yes – but there was a great place to read books in front of the gas fireplace, and so much more storage in the kitchen with the new layout. When a (rude) guest pointed out that we were still missing the quarter-round against the baseboards in the kitchen a full five years after we had completed the upgrade, I realized I hadn’t noticed this detail. I just noticed that I liked the way my dishes looked behind the glass-front cabinets. I liked my house for what it was, as it was. I did still have plans for it, but those were for the future and enjoying my house was something to do today.
Practicing patience also goes deeper than this – it is also being patient with yourself. Allowing yourself to be who you are right at this moment, and not pushing yourself to become a better you. Our culture is obsessed with self-improvement – Ben Franklin had 13 virtues he would track four times throughout the year – which sometimes means we do not appreciate who we are. I have found that it is easier to list my faults and plan for improvement than it is to sit back and revel in my now-ness.
On the surface, patience is something we all know we should cultivate. But we often need to remind ourselves that patience is more than being able to keep our serenity in a crowded DMV line. It is allowing ourselves to exist in our own time, and not to push constantly beyond where we are today. Here. In this moment.
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