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Dr Philippa Martyr: Patience is a seedbed for many virtues

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Patience is a seedbed for many virtues. Photo: Unsplash

So now that you’ve abandoned the donuts and decluttered the garage, what’s next on our list of new habits for Lent?

That’s all “learning the virtues” is. It’s replacing bad habits with good ones. As they become habitual, they become easier and more enjoyable to do.

This week it’s the mortal sin of anger, which has torn us all apart (me especially). The Catechism puts it very simply (CCC2302): “Anger is a desire for revenge.” And that’s it, in a nutshell.

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The virtue I’ll focus on today is patience. It’s also traditionally listed as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

It provides you with a means of controlling anger and a seedbed which will grow a lot of related virtues, if you take care of it.

Patience is the Christian antidote to the thing we currently call “intolerance.” This accusation is thrown around a lot these days.

Calling someone “intolerant” is a great way of making sure you never have a conversation with them that could change both your minds. We can’t have that, can we?

Instead of trying to be “tolerant,” I’d suggest that you try being “patient.” Patience is looking at a situation through God’s eyes and taking the very long view.

God has all the time in the world, which is why he can put up with each of us constantly failing. He is waiting for us to change our ways (Rom 2:4).

We can extend the same privilege to the people who annoy the living daylights out of us. You can’t control their choices or behaviour.

But you can control yours. How? By asking God to teach you to be less reactive.

This is the first and greatest challenge in managing anger, because uncontrolled reactivity comes out of deep wounds. Post-traumatic stress disorder—an extreme response to wounding—can make you hyper-vigilant.

You are on the alert constantly because you can’t trust anyone or anything. You’re always waiting for other people to attack you, so you can never let your guard down.

The slightest thing can set you off in verbal or physical rage. It’s horrible for everyone around you, but it’s also horrible for you.

With time, help, and some effort on your part, you can begin to see the world differently. One way is to learn to wait and breathe—count to 10, count backwards by threes, or even better, say the Hail Mary—before you respond to a situation.

Not reacting immediately is a brilliant technique for dealing with pretty much anything. Someone wise once told me, “Never make a decision in a hurry.” But becoming angry is doing exactly this.

If you wait before you respond, then often more facts will emerge, and you will find that you didn’t need to get angry. You’ve saved yourself from looking like an idiot by practising the related virtue of prudence.

Patience also grows when you stop having such ridiculous expectations of other people. People (including you) are not perfect.

Mostly they don’t have to obey you, and they will let you down all the time. Most people, even those who seem very holy, are only just keeping their heads above water on any given day.

If you can learn to lower the bar—even to the point of digging a trench and putting the bar in it—you will find it’s much easier to be patient with other people.

A psychological technique that can help you is self-compassion. Self-compassion is not self-pity (which is one of the deadliest things in the world).

It means learning to see yourself as God sees you. You are a tiny, weak, created thing who is really struggling.

You can do no good at all by your own efforts. You need soap and water and regular confession.

When you can extend the gift of God’s compassion to yourself as a weak mortal and a sinner, it becomes much easier to extend it to other people as well.

If you can heal from the wounds that make you trigger-happy, and if you can let go of the pleasures of being enraged, you will be on the way to forming a habit of patience.

You will also be on your way to enjoying the pleasure of what St Therese called, “secretly thinking good of others.”

Other enjoyable virtues will grow from this seedbed, like forgiveness and kindness and generosity.

You will hardly recognise yourself any more. Nor will all those people who have been avoiding you because you were so angry.

This will be your job for this week—and we’re nearly half-way through Lent!

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