The Art of Living: Patience and Perseverance
When experiencing sorrow, we might be tempted to close in on ourselves. We might allow negative emotions to gnaw at us. We might fail to be attentive to others’ needs because we are so preoccupied with our troubles. We might also become sluggish in our responsibilities, not giving the best of ourselves at work and with our family.
Some people simply are not pleasant to be around when they experience sorrow. They become gloomy and grumpy, and might even let their frustrations out on others.
Human beings cannot escape suffering in this world. However, the way we face life’s sorrows is a question of moral character. Do we allow sorrow to dominate our existence? Or do we bear our sorrow in a praise worthy manner, not allowing it to control us? Patience is the particular virtue we need to help us to bear sadness in such a way that we do not abandon the good course for our lives.
How do you respond when “bad things” happen to you? When you experience disappointment or setbacks? When you are hurt by something someone said?
Patience and Discouragement
Though it is perfectly natural to experience sadness over loss or injury, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, patience enables one to bear suffering in such a way that he is not broken by sorrow or led to forsake the way of virtue. Patience preserves peace of mind in the face of injury, suffering, and sadness. It prevents us from being “discouraged” – from losing courage.
The patient person, therefore, possesses a great freedom. He is free to stay on course with his life and fulfill his responsibilities, at least to some reasonable extent, even when “bad things” happen to him. The person lacking in patience is so overcome by his troubles that he fails to live virtuously in his relationships with others.
Donald DeMarco points out that patience is not a passive virtue. It requires much inner strength not to be discouraged in the midst of great trials and sadness. Many years ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with brain cancer. The last time I saw him was at Mass. He had not been coming to church as regularly as he used to, and on this particular day, one could tell that the cancer had taken a toll on him. He was pale, had lost a lot of weight, and looked worn down. Yet even in his suffering, he remained joyful, expressing gratitude to others and heartfelt interest in their lives. With a smile on his face, he grabbed my hand and asked, “So Ted, how are things at the college going?” He proceeded to ask me a number of questions about my classes, campus ministry, and family. When I asked him how he was doing, he gave an honest but hopeful response: “It’s hard . . .I’m in a lot of pain. . . . But I’ve lived a good life. I’m ready.”
Patience preserves peace of mind in the face of injury, suffering, and sadness. It prevents us from being “discouraged” – from losing courage.
I certainly was edified by his hope in eternal life as his own death was approaching. But I will always remember his patience in the midst of his intense suffering. He was not a man closed in on his own problems – even in the face of death. He remained peaceful, cheerful, and focused on others. Men and women who possess the virtue of patience have a tremendous inner strength that enables them bear even life’s most acute sufferings well. People lacking in patience focus so much on themselves that they seem almost incapable of being kind, thoughtful, and generous to others amid the many disappointments that come up in everyday life.
There is a second virtue related to courage that helps us stay on track when things don’t go as we have hoped. When we set out on a noble task at work or at home, we sometimes face challenges and obstacles that prevent us from achieving our goal. In these moments, it is the virtue of perseverance that enables us to persist firmly against difficulties. Whether it be a Christian struggling to overcome a particular weakness, a football team down by 21 points, or a husband trying to win back his wife’s heart after years of struggle in their marriage, perseverance enables one to continue to strive for the good no matter how difficult it might be to obtain it.
The kind of person who tends to give up when he faces difficulties lacks perseverance. When things do not come easily for him, he gets frustrated and wants to quit rather than persist and work through the problem. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the lack of perseverance is a vice called “softness.” A soft person lacks character. He is like a spongy “Nerf ” football that is easily bendable. Like a Nerf football, the soft person is easily” bent out of shape” when things do not go his way.
How do you respond when difficulties come your way? When the copy machine doesn’t work? When the hard drive on your computer crashes? When a traffic jam causes you delay? When the kids don’t put on their shoes quickly enough and you’re late for Mass again? If you are easily frustrated by the challenges and obstacles in life, it is a sign that you struggle with the vice of softness.
Home Improvement for Dummies
As a Catholic husband and father, I’ve often turned to St. Joseph as a model formy life. Yet I know there is one quality of his that I will never possess: his carpentry skills. Building and fixing things around the house does not come easily for me. For Christmas one year, my in-laws good-naturedly bought me one of those yellow and black books called Home Improvement for Dummies.
Early in our marriage, when we moved into our first home, a relative told us they were sending a barbecue grill for a housewarming gift and our anniversary. I was so excited when UPS delivered to my doorstep a large, heavy box with a picture of the new grill on it. I couldn’t wait to open the box, set the grill up on the porch, fire it up, and cook my first steaks in the new backyard!
When I opened the box, to my dismay, I discovered something quite unexpected. There was not a grill inside the box. Instead, I found many large pieces of metal and countless assembly parts. I had not noticed the small print on the box: “Some Assembly Required.” Now, instead of having a barbecue dinner ready on the back porch in a few minutes, I – Mr. Home-Improvement-Challenged – was going to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to decipher instructions and complete a complicated 20-step assembly process in time for dinner.
Things were not going well. The more I got into the project, the more I realized I was in over my head and the more tense I became. Then, at about step 5, my 1-yearold came walking into the room, saying” Dada!” and started playing with all the piles of small assembly pieces I had worked hard to organize. I was in no mood for play and was frustrated that the pieces were now mixed up and scattered over the floor. The tension in the house was mounting, and I called for my wife with a stressful tone of voice: “Beth, can you please keep the baby away from here?”
The worst part came when I reached step16 and realized I had made a fatal mistake: I had forgotten to do step 7. And step 7 was one of those essential steps that cannot be skipped! I now needed to disassemble althea work I had done in the last 25 minutes and go back to step 7. It was like being close to the finish line in the game Chutes and Ladders, but then landing on the space where the big slide takes you all the way back to the bottom.
Just at that moment, my wife came downstairs and saw what appeared to be an almost-completed, step-16-out-of-20 grill. Knowing I was having a hard time that day, she wanted to be my cheerleader, so with an encouraging smile and her loving, cheerful voice, she said, “Wow, honey, you’re almost done! This looks great!”
I, on the other hand, had a look of dejection and anger. In a quiet, frustrated tone of voice, almost biting my lip, I tried to explain: “Well . . . uh . . . actually, honey . . .I’m not even close to being done.” My blood pressure was rising. “You see, I forgot a step. . . and now I need to go all the way back.” At that point, I saw our 1-year-old getting into the assembly pieces again. “Could you please keep the baby away from here!”
Have you ever been with people when they’re having a stressed-out moment like this? When someone is tense, frustrated, and short with others, they are not pleasant to be around. We feel like we are walking on eggshells around them and prefer to stay clear. I realized that day that my lack of perseverance in this particular project was not just a problem for me – a shortcoming in my own personal life – but a weakness that was affecting other people. Because I was bent out of shape by the difficulties in assembling the grill, I was not free to love my wife and my child that day. My lack of virtue prevented me from treating them the way they deserved to be treated.
When we lose our temper over little things, we negatively affect the people around us. When we abandon the pursuit of a certain goal simply because it is difficult and demands a lot out of us, we are not the kind of people upon whom others can rely. This is why we want to cultivate the virtue of perseverance in our lives.
It gives us an inner strength to live our relationships well as we persist calmly and peacefully through the trials and difficulties that inevitably come our way. Perseverance, like all the virtues, is a crucial life skill that gives us the freedom to love.
By Edward P. Sri
1. Donald DeMarco, The Heart of Virtue: Lessons from Life and Literature Illustrating the Beauty and Value of Moral Character (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press,1996), p. 176.