February 8, 2010: Does patience imply passive acceptance of one’s lot in life?

Posted on : Feb 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Still Speaking

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

The list of the “Fruits of the Spirit” is well known to all who grew up in the church. Chances are good that you were expected to recite the list by heart in Sunday school.  They are all wonderful qualities that are supposed to embody the Christian life. Yet, when I hear the words “patience” or “patient endurance,” feelings of resistance bubble up in me. It seems to me that we spend so much of our life waiting – waiting for something to happen over which we apparently have no control. And I’m not just talking about everyday life stuff, such as waiting at the airport terminal, aimlessly paging through old magazines at the doctors office, stuck in traffic, finishing school, finding a job (especially in the current economic situation), looking forward to a long awaited vacation, and so forth and so forth, and so forth. There is also the waiting for the pain to dull when a loved one has died, or the sharp pain of a gut wrenching break up, or waiting for the anger to dissipate with a messy divorce, the resolution of a conflict, enduring the suffering of a long-term illness – the list goes on and on.  And then there’s the yearning for a just world to live in, whether it is healthcare for all, or same-gender marriage, or minimum pay a family could actually survive on, or humane immigration laws, or the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or true equality – and the list goes on (and this is just in the USA). Witnessing the suffering world at large, feelings of impatience seem to be my constant companion, because patience seems to mean we are forever waiting for some far-off day in the future when things will be better and different. Is seems to imply a life of passive helplessness. On the other hand, Henry Nouwen once said that when we are impatient we try to get away from where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, somewhere else. Does that sound familiar? When we try to reach a future that may or may not be better than the now, we lose sight of life in the present – the gifts and blessings that are available for us in the present.

What to do? If I lived a hundred years ago I could have asked the advice of Marie Manning. For those of you who don’t know, Marie Manning was the first ever advice columnist, alias “Dear Miss Beatrix Fairfax” for a New York Newspaper, the Evening Journal. Miss Manning lived in a time when female and journalist were not words you would use in the same sentence. In fact at the time, at the Evening Journal, women were literally separated from the male journalists in a room called the Hen Coop. Marie used to say: Forcing a man to work in the same room with us was the equivalent of sending a dog to the pound or standing a child in the corner. As you can imagine, all the serious assignments and stories went to the male journalists. Typical of the type of assignments Marie (and the other women) would receive, the editor of the newspaper asked Marie one fine day if she could work three letters the newspaper had received from readers with personal problems into a story. So much for the serious news stories Marie was yearning to cover!  It must have sucked to be a woman before your time, envisioning a world in which women would be treated equally, would be considered for an assignment not based on their gender, but their abilities. Instead of impatiently trying to get away from the present, Marie came up with a novel idea. Why not start a new feature in the newspaper, a column for people who need advice. Surely there were people who would confide in a sensitive stranger. The editor like the idea, and the first advice column was born under Marie’s pen name, Miss Beatrix Fairfax, who would “advise you on the troubles of your heart.” The column was a roaring success – Marie received fourteen hundred letters a day, in a time when women were taught to handle the mishaps of life by enduring suffering in silence, to accept their lot in life, to be strong. Marie, who grew up with an alcoholic father, had a different view of life: If there is a practical solution, battle for it; if the law will help, invoke the law; in any case, pick up the pieces and keep going.*

Typical of a woman of her era, she gave up the column when she married. But that’s not the end of her story. When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, her husband lost everything. In order to survive, Marie asked her editor for her old job back. He gave it to her without thinking twice. But now the advice people asked for had become more serious and grave as the ills of the depression and the Second World War left countless ruined lives and much suffering behind. Marie was up for the challenge. Her life and all she had suffered prepared her well, and soon her advice column was running in two hundred newspapers.

Henry Nouwen once wrote: Patience is not waiting passively until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to taste the here and the now, to be where we are. Let’s be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand.

Maybe that‘s the attitude the Apostle Paul had in mind when he added “patience” to his list of the Fruits of the Spirit.

Carpe Diem,


* Read more about Marie’s life and other wonderful life stories in Lawrence Wood’s book: News To Me: Gospel Stories for the Real World, 2008.