by Michael G. in

As is true of many people, I think a lot about a lot of things. As with most people, there are things I want, things I won't have, and things I don't mind waiting for. Over the course of years, seemingly regardless of which societies we grow up in or the primary languages we speak, we're all exposed to many little nuggets of apparently obvious wisdom. Sometimes we take these to heart and truly let them shape our lives, sometimes we think we understand them and move on.

One such piece of wisdom is that "patience is a virtue". Most native English speakers have heard the turn of phrase in some form. Being rooted somewhat in the early European Christian "Seven Heavenly Virtues" , some variation of the phrase is (I would guess) recognized by most who grew up in an area steeped in that cultural influence. Most other cultures (again, a guess) probably also have proverbs or passed-down pieces of wisdom advising patience. It seems a totally natural and agreeable thing to agree patience is a wise, helpful, and generally admirable trait to nurture.

I don't believe many would argue with an assertion that people are, generally, not all that patient. I also don't believe many would argue with an assertion that people, generally, are less patient than we believe ourselves to be. Why is that? Why do we, as people who understand patience is likely good for us and may actively try to be patient, often fail at recognizing a lack of patience within ourselves?

A scenario that comes to mind is a stereotypical movie scene: A couple is having an argument, screaming at one another. Perhaps one of the two has clearly been wronged by the other for quite some time. One of the two has spent quite a bit of time waiting for the situation to improve. Maybe promises to change have been made and not acted on. Maybe the failure is on the one making demands. Maybe the failure is a lack of sincerity. Regardless, at some point one person screams or declares "I have been patient for so long!" You know the scene.

Most of us have, at some point, been there in our minds if not in an outspoken and dramatic manner fitting of Hollywood. The thing that we tend not to understand, or refuse to understand, is that most of the time when we think we're being patient, we're not. This comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what patience is. I'm a big proponent of establishing definitions of terms before starting a discussion, and (though this is a topic for another time) firmly believe it's nearly impossible to have a reasonable discussion on a topic of importance without discussing the definitions of terms in use. So let's start with a definition.

Google tells us the following:




the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.

Notice that last part?

"without getting angry or upset"

Yeah. That part. Patience isn't tolerating something without outwardly showing you're upset. Patience isn't hunkering down and being annoyed by a delay but knowing you'll be ok as long as it (whatever it is) happens eventually. Patience isn't biding your time based on a promise for the future. Patience isn't waiting for something that has to happen.

If that's not what patience is, then what is it? While I could get straight to the point, first I want to establish a few more definitions.

Another common phrase is "Don't settle". In general, people understand that settling is bad but compromising is good. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably. In my mind, and for the purpose of this discussion, there's a pretty clear distinction to be made between settling and compromising.

Settling is done when you give up on a principle. Compromising is done when you give up on a detail. It's important to avoid conflating principles with details. A principle is something you're totally unwilling to bend on. It's something that directs your life and the ways in which you change yourself over time or govern your thoughts. A detail is not. A principle–for example–is knowing you want to only marry someone who shares a particular belief or outlook on life, or not at all. A detail is wanting to meet someone in a place or environment where you think that's likely. A detail is wanting to meet someone soon, or maybe even at all. Recognizing the wisdom behind the principle allows you to realize the principle is worth sticking to and the detail is worth compromising on. Meeting someone at a particular place, in a particular context, or even at all becomes a compromisable detail. Is getting married your principle? Or is only getting married if the circumstances are right the principle? Is doing everything to win a competition your principle? Or is doing your best while retaining your integrity your principle? Principles are worth thinking about and understanding so that you will not settle and are then free to compromise on the details of your life. If you know your desire to win is a detail while retaining your integrity is a principle, then you know which to bend on when they come into conflict. Sacrificing your integrity would be settling. Forgoing the victory would be compromising specifically in the name of not settling. The same person in the same situation can often choose to either compromise or to settle. The same two people in a relationship can often choose to either compromise or settle. The former may result in a desired future. The latter probably will not. It's important to recognize the difference, and even to note that sometimes leaving a situation entirely is the only way to avoid settling.

So then, after all this, what is patience?

Patience is not being upset despite recognizing something isn't as you'd like it to be. Patience is knowing you'll continue to not be angry even if your desire never comes to fruition. Patience is understanding what your principles are and knowing you're in a good place with regard to those even if the details of your life aren't as you wish they were. Patience is something reserved for compromiseable details when you're confident you're not settling on your principles. Patience can only be achieved when you do not conflate principles with details or settling with compromise.

You can want the details. You can put a lot of effort into attaining them. You can put quite a bit of value on them. You can desire a particular goal, a victory, or a relationship with a particular person. It is ok, even admirable, to seek out your desires, to recognize what details you'd like in your life and work towards them. Remembering that you can do without them, that it's a definite possibility you will, and being ok with that scenario means knowing you'll only accept the details when they're right–when they don't demand settling. This means being willing to go without some relationships of all types in order to assure you only have healthy ones or being willing to forego some victories in order to only have honorable ones. It means being able to recognize when a particular detail may have become impossible to have without settling. It means keeping your principles intact so the details you can have can be enjoyed to the fullest when the time is right.

True patience is the willingness to wait for something you desire under the right circumstances, without the promise you will ever get it.

Don't settle on what you need. Compromise on what you want.

Be patient.