By Liz Massey, June 2016 Issue.
With a couple of spectacularly out-of-character (not to mention highly entertaining) exceptions, I have not been known for most of my life as an impulsive person. Even when it comes to my writing, I’m typically a planner, not a plunger. However, it’s a mistake if someone reads my preference for structure as an attachment to stagnancy. I like for things to progress in a positive manner – and according to my blueprints, if possible. And when things don’t, I get impatient.
Many wisdom traditions address impatience by saying that the things that bug you the most are the things that have the most to teach you. If that is the case, I will be a student in the School of Life until the end of my days. I have a long list of issues that get under my skin, starting with personal life stressors such as unrealized career ambitions (where’s that book I’m destined to write?) and the laggardly progress of my health and fitness, to political aggravations such as anti-trans bathroom laws, violently polarizing rhetoric, and the time and money our community has to spend defending ourselves against fear-mongering and scapegoating by right-wing leaders.
The quality of patience gets mixed reviews by civil rights activists, including queer equality advocates, and that’s probably as it should be. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded his contemporaries, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Too often, asking an oppressed group to “wait” on freedom means asking them to quit demanding it. But major reform movements do often take quite some time to play out. More than a century passed between Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; 72 years passed between the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first gathering to call for women’s equality with men, and the act that represented the culmination of its aims – universal suffrage for American women through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which took effect in 1920.
The most successful activists seem to take a paradoxical attitude toward patience. They never lose their impatience with inequality, injustice and oppression. But they also make a commitment to stay with their advocacy for as long as change requires, and adopt habits and a life structure that can sustain that commitment.
With a long-term commitment to change-making in place, it’s possible to consider the advantages of being patient in a specific situation, some of which include:
• The time to think strategically.
• Ability to let the proverbial dust settle and see what’s actually happening.
• The capacity to escalate a direct action in a thoughtful way.
• Allowing oneself or others time to make lifestyle or time commitment changes, in order to be able to give more to the movement.
• Providing the opportunity to turn neutral and mildly antagonistic folks into supporters – a switch known as “shifting the spectrum of allies.”
The key to utilizing patience, as I’m discovering in my own life, is balance. When I ignore my gut feeling that NOW is the time to act, I miss watershed moments in which conditions are particularly ripe for change. On the other hand, when my actions seem driven by frustration and desperation, and not my core values, I often find I have created “change,” but not of the sort for which I was looking.
Although I find it a little unnerving, there is a parallel between the use of patience in activism and its use in personal self-development. In both cases, it can neither be a shield for resistance to change, nor a battering ram for inflicting change where the current environment will not support it.
Bill Gates, who revolutionized the software industry, once observed, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Slow and steady doesn’t so much win the race as it allows the runner to perform with crazy bursts of speed when needed, such as to pass an opponent or to take the lead in the final stage of the contest. Demanding that we all run at full speed all of the time is a prescription for burnout. Our community functions best when we can cheer each other on with wisdom, knowing when to encourage someone to stay the course (and be patient with an anticipated change) and when to sprint across the finish line and make change happen.