Thursday, July 28, 2011

Learning the Art of Patience

I'm not a very patient person. I've been aware of this shortcoming for many years but only recently have I made a conscious decision to practice patience as a spiritual discipline. It's a deeply challenging commitment and I feel it pushing me into a whole new level of being. My impatience has lead to poor decisions and missed opportunities. I have hurt myself and those closest to me. Not only that, instead of being fully present and enjoying the moment, I often find myself racing through life like an addict desperate for her next fix.

I'm so caught up in getting things done that I lose the ability to see let alone meet the needs of those around me. I see tasks instead of people and practice efficiency when I could be expressing empathy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my work as a nurse at a long-term care facility. The workload is heavy so we have very little time to spend with any one resident. I find myself avoiding small talk, dismissing needs and rushing residents through their meals and cares. At home I am painfully aware of the extra time it takes to allow my toddler to figure things out for herself. I can do it myself, let me do it! is her everpresent mantra these days and my rebuttals are just as predictable: We're too late. Hurry up. Focus. You're taking too long. Just let me do it!

Even more difficult than the time crunch factor are the inevitable personality conflicts that arise. Learning to have patience with someone who is deliberately mean or manipulative is far more challenging than having patience with someone who is unwittingly pissing me off. At work I am expected to maintain therapeutic relationships with some very hostile people. On a regular basis I am criticized, ignored and degraded. I've had my wrists grabbed and my face slapped. Usually these people are suffering with dementia or mental illness, but some are just plain hateful. Here's an example of a situation I encountered just this past week:

Resident: Get me an egg sandwich; this dinner is terrible. 

Me: We don't have any egg sandwiches but there are some tuna sandwiches in the kitchenette.

Resident: I don't eat tuna! I pay top dollar to live here. There must be someone who can make me an egg sandwich.

Me: (Taking a deep breath and trying to remain calm.) As soon as I finish passing out the dinner trays I'll go down to the main kitchen and see if the staff can make you one.

Resident: You always have to wait for something in this place. What happened to actually caring for people? Nurses aren't what they used to be.

I did go down to the main kitchen and wait while the cook made an egg sandwich but when I brought it back to the resident she ended up taking just one bite and spitting it on the floor. This is horrible. I wouldn't feed this to a dog! I wonder if you can imagine how much it made my blood boil to wipe up spit food off the floor and dumping that uneaten sandwich in the garbage after going out of my way to appease her. Mealtime is very busy in nursing homes and we rarely entertain last minute special requests.

This resident remained rude throughout my shift. I did my best to remain kind and professional but eventually I cracked. As I was getting her ready for bed she threw another snarky criticism at me and it was the straw that broke the camel's back. You're right, I told her angrily, I can't do anything right so why should I bother trying? With that said I abruptly turned and walked out of the room. I didn't return to help her with anything for the remaining hour of my shift. I lost patience.

Actually, I shouldn't say I lost patience because truthfully I don't think I had any to begin with. I was remaining outwardly calm and polite but underneath the surface I was still a ball of nerves. She set my teeth on edge and I hated every minute I spent in her presence. My defenses finally crumbled and I showed my true colors. Then, within minutes, the guilt set in.

I spoke to my pastor about this incident and he lead me to some important insights. Not least of which was that I had been expecting this person to be won over by my actions. Deep down I believed that if I was kind enough she would stop being mean to me. I viewed her bad attitude as my own personal failure. I had been treating her with respect and kindness but she wasn't returning the favor. It was so unfair!

I had been modifying my behaviors but I had not yet changed my thinking. I was merely hiding my frustration. Practicing patience, it turns out, is much more than simply controlling my angry outbursts. True patience involves abandoning my agenda to enter a new perspective -one that seeks to accept and cooperate with the will of others. By acknowledging their independence I free myself from the misery of expectation. Some people will remain distressed and miserable no matter how much love we shower them with. When I approach a relationship with a personal agenda, using my patience and kindness as a tool to get someone to do what I want, I am simply being manipulative. Can I still be kind and patient when that person tosses my agenda out the window? Now there is the real test!

"In your patience possess ye your souls." (Luke 21:19)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Does Church Turn You Off God?

About two years ago I started attending a local church on a regular basis. That isn't to say I wasn't seeking a relationship with Him long before that time. As a child I paid attention to God because He was a mysterious, magical being that, like Santa Claus, was creepily watching everything I did. As a teen I suffered paralyzing existential anxiety and turned to (a seemingly deaf-mute) God with big questions about the meaning of life and my place in it. As a young adult I became intrigued with New Age spirituality, yoga and the mind-body-spirit connection. I also attended the occasional Catholic mass or Protestant service. Meanwhile, I had formed a few close friendships with Christians and I was in love with their love for God. Their faith made me thirsty for my own intimate relationship with the Divine, but their churches turned me off.

Surely the God of the universe was infinitely more complex and unknowable than the Sunday school version we were being spoonfed. Those who claimed to know God and His nature often struck me as naive or ignorant in the sweetest possible ways. Not only that, I sensed a cloud of unreality hovering over the Christian subcultures I encountered. Where were all the broken, desperate and needy? Everyone looked pacified, generic and sanitized. If they spoke at all about serious struggles (addiction, domestic violence, depression, etc.) it was in the context of a testimony about their transformation. On several occasions I heard preachers share about God's healing powers but no one around me looked like they needed to be healed. They kept their wounds well hidden. When did the church become a spiritual country club for middle class do-gooders and socialites? Going to church was like watching an ABC Afterschool Special; it felt lame. It didn't inspire me into a deeper relationship with God. If anything, it underwhelmed and disappointed. Or, it felt forced. Much like a person who invades your personal space, the Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour? spiel was desperately awkward. It certainly didn't fan the spark of intimacy that was developing between me and God. It was all too much, too soon.

I was highly suspicious of the prosperity gospel, although I wasn't familiar with that term at the time. I just knew that many churches promoted Jesus as if all your troubles (health, finances, etc.) would melt away if you trusted Him. If only it were that simple. That message is a much loved lie. Truly following Jesus involves carrying your own cross and being a willing participant in your own crucifixion.

Another thing that bothered me as I straddled the line between heathen and Christian was that the relationships between the 'saved' (them) and the 'lost' (me) often felt tainted by agendas or expectations. I can remember feeling like everyone was wearing a Jesus mask and trying to sell me something. I often felt more like a project than a friend. I doubted these people had any interest in remaining my friend if I didn't eventually cross the line -that gulf of belief that separated us. I wondered how long their interest would last. They appeared to care more about leading me to Jesus than me as a person. (I have to add, the longer I stayed in the church the more blurred that line between the lost and the saved became.)

But you know what I've realized? Not everyone in the church is faking it. There are many genuine people who, once you get to know them, will surprise you with their experiences and candor. And yes, there are those who do have simple, straight paths and rather boring stories but does that mean they are any less deserving of our time and attention? Does that mean they have less to offer? It seems to me that prejudice can come from both directions. Those who share struggles aloud and claim to be "keeping it real" are sometimes more critical of people who appear to have it all together than vice versa. Yes, there are those who are severely wounded but work hard to hide their dysfunction and there are people who preach fear and hate disguised as God's plan. But aren't they the saddest cases of all? Their egos are like iron maidens preventing God's love from getting through.They need the kind of love and patience that is rarest of all.

I guess what I'm trying to say is the church community is much more complex than it appears on the surface and it is to our benefit to keep an open mind when we encounter people who don't think about or worship God in the same ways we do. For a long time my knee jerk reactions kept me isolated from the living body of Christ. It took a few years before I realized that I was being just as arrogant and judgmental as those I claimed to be separating myself from. Don't get me wrong, I realize not everyone will feel comfortable in every church and that's okay. But I think it's important to keep looking until you find a community of believers who will help you grow spiritually and support your journey in an authentic way. We come together to challenge and encourage one another, to learn patience, sacrifice and the art of cooperation. We teach one another what love really is and we do it intentionally. No church is perfect, but when our goal is to serve most churches will suffice. A large group with a common goal is much more powerful than the will of any individual.