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)


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

This is very true. Now, all I need is for someone to remind me of it 4 or 5 hundred times a day.

Sandra said...

Darn it, Michelle! You mean I have to actually LIVE this spirituality stuff? Can't I just recite a creed and be done with it like everyone else? You think Christianity has something to do with our deep inner selves? Criminy! :)

This might be harder to do than Dropping the Rocks. Which was pretty fundamentally ground shaking when I did that the first time.

Michelle said...

@Tragedy - I promise to remind you if you promise to remind me ;)

@Sandra - Haha. No kidding eh? Remind me, have you read the book Drop the Rock? ( Have we already had this conversation? I've still got quite a few stones weighing me down.

Anonymous said...

Love the last paragraph! Very true

Michelle said...

Thanks! Writing this post was a test of my patience. I had completed it but before editing/publishing I walked away from the computer and ended up losing half of it. I guess I didn't hit "save draft" and a few hours later when I opened up the post it only had the first 3 paragraphs. The post ended up being quite different. Hopefully for the better :)

Like a Child said...

Thanks for the reminder. My MIL can be difficult and my husband and I had to learn that we can't always expect the person to change...and we just have to adjust and adapt.

Blogger is always fustrating fact, this is m y 2nd attempt at writing a comment:)

Michelle said...

It's so hard to come to a place where I can accept that someone is probably never going to change, and yet, when I do, I feel such freedom!

Anonymous said...


I want to thank you for the work you do in the nursing home. I watched my four grandparents live into their 90's and 100 and their last years were spent in homes like the one you work in.

Your job is not an easy one and also remember you are human and our patience does wear thin.

Something that I tried to remember (as a nurse myself) is that one day I'll be the elderly person that might go-off on staff members. :-( I might be the person who spits at you. Just know, it's not you they are spitting's the stinking position of living your life to end up in a nursing home that most of us end up spitting at. :-)

A little story I'll share. When I first graduated from nursing I was one of very few students offered a job in the hospital we trained in. My job was on the rehab/long-term care floor. On night med rounds I woke up an elderly man to give him his sleeping pill. :-)

He was in restraints but someone managed in the blink of an eye to raise his one leg and plant his foot squarely on my right jaw. A quick reflexive blow to my mouth that brought on instant tears. Keep in mind I was bent over towards him so I had no chance of avoiding the blow. Then he yelled at me. "You wake up an old man to give him his sleeping pill?!" I thought to myself, good grief, he's right!

I marched out to the desk and slammed my tray down. The nurse in charge saw my shock and pain and tears and quickly asked me what was wrong. I told her the story. They all knew he was like that but nobody bothered to tell me that and then I got mad at them. :-) I argued that the old man was right and what the heck we're we doing waking him up. I as told "We have to follow Doctor's orders." I mumbled something about maybe the doctor can get kicked in the jaw next time.

Another day, one of the elderly women was sitting in her chair in the hall and she kept telling me to "F-off." Every single time I passed by! Finally, back to the desk I go and ask, "What's up with her?!" The nurses smiled an said, "Oh, funny thing about her, she's a dear lady but doesn't remember. She has severe dementia. If she knew she was doing that she'd be so ashamed. She was a church organist her whole life." I got my eyes opened then. :-)

I don't share this to minimize in any way your experience...just to come alongside and say, been there, done that...I understand. I think these experiences do eventually teach us patience. If not we burn-out. Been there too. :-) (Found you at LAC's blog.)

... Zoe ~

Anonymous said...

P.S. Note to myself. Remember to proof read before posting your comment. *blush*

... Zoe ~

Michelle said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences Zoe. It really helps to know someone hears and understands -especially the unique frustrations in nursing. You're right though, if we don't learn patience we'll burn out, and I feel myself needing a time-out these days. I've reduced my work hours and want to focus on health and family as much as possible so I'll be spiritually well enough to be a light rather than taking on all the negativity. Thanks for your comments!

Sandra said...

Yes, you were the one who introduced me to the idea of "drop the rocks" The image of that metaphor really grabbed me and I meditated on it for months last year. I took a meditative journey of the soul with that as my intention and had a truly fascinating experience in which I literally pulled rocks from my body and dropped them back into the transformative earth. I am still feeling the healing effects of it. I wish I could repeat the experience but that doesn't seem to be happening.

Michelle said...

That's amazing Sandra. I think I'll follow your lead and try meditating on that imagery as well. I am just starting to meditate regularly and I find it really helps to have something specific to focus on at this stage.

Sandra said...


I find that meditation is better if I precede or supplement the strictly spiritual/mind stuff with some kind of physical activity--yoga was how I started meditating. Other things I do now are rosaries/prayer beads, a "mindful" bath or shower, and just yesterday I walked a labyrinth. If I'm not too anxious or high-strung (an everyday state of being, usually), knitting is great. My mind is much less fretful--monkey mind as the Buddhist gurus call it--when my body is moving in some kind of gentle, repetitive, focused way. Even rocking in a rocking chair is better than sitting on the floor in lotus position or kneeling or sitting in church-like attitudes.

But that's just me.

Michelle said...

I do pray the rosary occasionally and find this type of meditation the easiest... but just sitting... well, it's tough! I love the idea of meditating in a rocking chair. Too bad I just got rid or glider. (Little fingers couldn't seem to stay safe!)

If I remember correctly yoga is a practice created for the sole purpose of preparing the body for meditation -no not a bad idea. Plus, the added benefit of physical activity. Problem? I think I'm lazy. I CANNOT seem to will myself to make these healthy lifestyle changes. The kids are terrible sleepers and I'm chronically exhausted. But if nothing changes, well, nothing changes! Sigh.

DoOrDoNot said...

I just found your blog via LAC's blog. i enjoyed your post and your very reflective thoughts on a practice of patience. I've been challenged by my recent meditations during yoga and jogging to be mindful of the moment. Soo hard when there's so much to do. I'm not a nurse, but as a psychologist I work with many folks who strain my patience too! sometimes I mumble a few comments after I've hung up with someone and I worry that one day I will forget to push the end call button before I start mumbling!

Michelle said...

Hi, thanks for dropping by and offering a comment. I've been reading/appreciating your blog!