10 Tips for Cultivating Patience in an Impatient World

As an elementary school teacher, my wife finds great fulfillment in helping her sixth graders improve their math skills. But she almost always has to deal with a few students who moan about having to learn new things. They lack the patience to correct their mistakes and practice until they’ve achieved mastery. Their impatience in turn tries the patience of their teacher.

At church, at home, and in the workplace our impatience can start to feed on the impatience of others. Since none of us have the patience of Job, all of us try each other’s patience. Stopping this vicious circle requires a little more patience from all of us. This means being willing to give others – and ourselves – time to change.

Of course, patience is not always a virtue. Sometimes teachers need to send disruptive students to the principal’s office. Sometimes we need to seize the day and take immediate action. Justice, courage, and kindness often call on us to make a difference without delay.

But it goes without saying that most of life’s challenges require patience. It takes patience to accomplish worthwhile goals. It takes patience to face unexpected trials such as serious illness, financial setbacks, and failed relationships. It takes patience to deal with life’s daily problems, including backed up freeways, bad weather, and slow lines at the grocery store.

One of the obstacles to developing patience is that our modern world caters to convenience and immediate gratification. We don’t need to grow a garden when we can pick up whatever we need from a convenience store. We don’t need to spend our time with home-cooked meals when restaurants and pre-packaged meals are always available. We don’t need to save up money to buy a new car when we can get a low-interest loan and buy it now. We don’t need to wait a week for our favorite television show when we can watch the entire series over the weekend on Netflix. And we don’t need patience to travel a thousand miles when we can hop on a plane and be there in a couple of hours.

So how can we cultivate patience in an impatient world? Here are ten tips.

The first two are taken from a 2017 journal article published in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality by Sarah Schnitker and her colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary.

1. Attach meaning to suffering.

Schnitker describes how religious communities generally promote the idea that some forms of suffering can be redemptive, leading to self-mastery, empathy, and greater life-fulfillment. This is what she calls a “transcendent narrative identity.” It provides the strength to look beyond present suffering and work toward a future where our lives have changed for the better.

2. Learn to control your emotions.

Schnitker and her fellow psychologists identify emotional regulation as another core aspect of patience. It’s easy to become frustrated, annoyed, and even bitter when things don’t go our way. But acting on negative emotions almost always makes situations worse. When I start to get impatient, I try to imagine how I would respond in my present circumstances if I were patient. Every once in a while, this sort of cognitive reappraisal helps me respond more calmly with a long-term perspective.

3. Look to nature for inspiration.

Ralph Waldo Emerson offers this advice: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” It takes time to develop a strong root system that can support sturdy branches and bear fruit. We’re more likely to develop patience when we understand that disappointment and heartache can make us more capable of tasting the fruit of happiness in the future.

4. View patience as a golden mean

Aristotle helpfully describes most virtues as the golden mean between two extremes. For example, true courage is found somewhere between cowardice, on one hand, and recklessness, on the other. In a similar way, possessing patience means that we avoid foolish, impetuous actions. But it also means that we avoid a passive or lazy acceptance of suffering, injustice, and mediocrity.

5. Be humble enough to take small steps

For me personally, patience implies the willingness to take small steps to improve my life and the lives of those around me. Building a business, raising a family, and getting an education are made up of little things that add up over a long period of time. This same principle applies to recovering from the emotional wounds caused by unhealthy relationships. Shakespeare’s Othello explains it best: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

6. Be consistent in taking the small steps

In working toward an ambitious goal, I find that I need to set aside non-negotiable time every day, even if it’s just a few minutes, to do something concrete. If I go more than a day or two without taking any steps toward realizing my goal, the future that I had envisioned grows dim and I begin to lose hope. This is one of the reasons why scriptural counsel often pairs patience with diligence.

7. Be a finisher

Because I’m naturally an impatient person, I tend to get discouraged and move on to something else when I don’t see results as quickly as I’d like. This brings up the importance of personal commitment. Devote yourself to worthy causes and see your projects through to the end. Knowing that you’re a finisher can help you stay the course.

8. Don’t try to control other people

Self-mastery is one of the cornerstones of a happy life. We need to control our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions. But one of the surest paths to unhappiness is trying to control other people. Persuade family members, friends, and strangers through your example. Then give the people you love room to change. Try to remain pleasant and never give up on them.

9. Remember how tough you are

Patience is more about toughness than weakness and passivity. When life gets overwhelming, remind yourself of the many challenges and difficulties you’ve overcome in the past. You’ll find hidden strength and happiness if you just keep moving forward.

10. Cultivate hope for a brighter future

Patience is much more than a willingness to endure suffering. It’s about believing in a brighter future that comes one small, imperfect step at a time.

Character Education as the Neglected Gift of Past Generations

For the past several years, I’ve designed online digital literacy courses for community college students. One of the first concepts my students learn is the difference between hardware and software technology. Hardware is essentially the technology you can touch and feel, like computer monitors, keyboards, printers, wireless routers, and microchips. Software, on the other hand, is the computer code or electronic instructions that tell the hardware what to do. While you can see the results of these instructions on a screen or on a printed page, you can’t see or touch the software itself. But the unseen software breathes functional life into the computer hardware.

In a similar way, our material world of houses, vehicles, furniture, and physical bodies would be lifeless without the intangible world of human character, values, and relationships.

In a 1960 address to college educators, my great-grandfather P.A. Christensen conveyed his gratitude for the animating presence of light and truth in human society. The classic works of literature and the enduring truth inspired by nature were for him “unearned” gifts that found their expression in the lives of ordinary people. These gifts impact the quality of our lives within the immaterial “realm of human growth and transcendence,” leading to character development and social harmony.

One of Professor Christensen’s purposes was to challenge his students’ unthinking embrace of what he termed the “gospel of work,” the philosophy that we get nothing in life that we haven’t earned, nothing that we haven’t paid for. From his perspective, such a materialistic philosophy leaves little room for appreciating the gifts that are graciously given by our fellow human travelers.

The intangible gifts of wisdom, generosity, and other human virtues constitute what I call character education. The core curriculum for this education is the overflowing beauty of nature, the abundant wealth of literature, and the supernal gifts of family and friendship.

As I reflect on my great-grandfather’s nearly 60-year-old message, my thoughts turn to the vast inequality in today’s society; for so many people, the gifts I take for granted are neither free nor readily available. Domestic violence, impoverished neighborhoods, and failing schools often substitute cruelty for compassion and overindulgence for self-mastery. This awareness periodically disturbs my sense of satisfaction as I read Aristotle in the comfort of my happy home.

Of course, I’m digressing and missing my grandfather’s point here. The more aware and grateful I am for my unearned gifts, the more likely I am to share those gifts with the less experienced or the less fortunate, those who don’t enjoy unfettered access to light and truth. I’m also more likely to drink them in deeply myself, living the timeless principles of truth in the present.

As Jesus said to his disciples, “freely ye have received, freely give.” This response is a natural flow of goods from the original source, through me, to others. I consequently have no time to feel guilty about the privileges of my life. Understanding that “where much is given, much is required,” I am more determined to share.

As a parent and educator, I approach my teaching responsibilities with a degree of humility. My eagerness to enlighten others feels presumptuous. But we give and take with an open mind and a willingness to be corrected. We engage in the conversation because of our conviction that character development and moral education are needed today—perhaps more than ever.

Character education is not a panacea that will solve all our societal problems. But any serious effort to address our problems must include it. We need principles of truth that draw upon a shared moral vocabulary. We need to be inspired by real-world examples of courage and wisdom. We need to recognize moral failure and learn how to recover from it.

In promoting this conversation, we can and should turn to the latest social scientific research. But we also need to engage with the voices of the past—our unearned inheritance from faithful, rational minds. These poets and teachers, scientists and philosophers, didn’t always get things right. They had their own blind spots and occasions of moral failure. We can refuse, for this reason, to consider their professed insights. Disillusioned with the past, we can rely exclusively on our own experience and intuition to change the future. But the foundation of such a response is both arrogance and ingratitude.

Reconciling the voices of the past with the realities of the present undoubtedly calls for a venture in faith, a precarious journey into the spiritual realm of human growth and transcendence. As I continue my own journey, I’m grateful for faithful companions—past and present—who inspire me to be better than I am.