What then is the compassionate way? The compassionate way is the patient way. Patience is the discipline of compassion. This becomes obvious when we realize that the word compassion could be read as com-patience. The word passion and patience both find their roots in the Latin word “pati”, which means “suffering”. The compassionate life could be described as a life patiently lived with others.
Henri Nouwen, Compassion
Yesterday was a very pressure-packed day for me (Tom). I woke up this morning still feeling drained from yesterday’s activities and responsibilities. I’m still trying to get my equilibrium again. I had forgotten that I had scheduled a dental appointment at 8:00 this morning. Still half asleep I made it to the appointment on time. While sitting in the chair as my teeth were being cleaned, I sensed that the hygienist really wanted to talk. Even though I was exhausted I still believed this woman really needed to share and it was important for me to listen. By asking a few simple questions in between her flossing and picking her way through my mouth and expressing a sense of patience with her, it enabled her to feel safe to share. I would imagine that most patients (no pun intended) simply sit in the chair most days (and I’m sure that at times I’ve done the same) and don’t necessarily have the patience to be present in the moment. So often our minds are a thousand other places – the next meeting, the next appointment, the next soccer practice to get to, the amount of bills we have to pay – and we miss out on the opportunity at hand to be a listening ear for someone who simply needs to share. The other night I saw a great scene from Seinfeld where Jerry and Elaine had gone to get massages and the masseuse wanted to talk. But neither Jerry nor Elaine wanted to talk. They complained that “isn’t the reason you go to get a massage to be alone, to not have to talk?” I get where they are coming from; there are times when I simply want to be alone, to rest and to care for my own needs. Don’t we all? But I also know that when I do need to talk and to share I really appreciate someone who will listen.
Throughout my life (and I have by no means been perfect at this) I (Michael) have strived very hard to be present and not distracted when others have indicated that they have needed to talk. I have tried to listen patiently and attentively even when I’ve heard the same story over and over again. I remember one time I was co-leading a class for people undergoing trauma in their lives. One woman clearly needed to share her story as she had done many times before. At a break she pulled me aside and started to share it with me even though I had already heard most of it before. But before she got even a few minutes into her story, one of my co-leaders happened to walk by and heard what she was saying. He stopped and looked at us and said, “You’ve already told to me and several others, you don’t need to keep telling it, to him.” I was stunned by his insensitivity. As he walked away and was out of earshot I indicated to her that it was okay, she could share whatever she needed to. And it was okay. It was necessary for her, as she dealt with a life-threatening situation, to get it out, to tell all about it, and to keep telling it until she had processed it completely and didn’t need to tell it anymore. My co-leader didn’t get that; he didn’t have the patience for it – the compassion – to listen and allow her to find the emotional and spiritual healing that she needed. He often chastised me for my “patience”, indicated that it was not a virtue. But even though he did not honor my understanding of compassionate patience, I refused to be dissuaded from doing what I have always thought was right.
It’s certainly not easy to have patience a lot of the time. We live in a world that is always demanding our time and attention. It’s hard, intentional work to listen, to hear without frustration, the same stories all over again, to just be present with someone, to engage them and to enter into their lives in a way that shows we care. Yes, sometimes it’s painful and sometimes it’s mundane. But it’s always laying aside our own needs and desires out of a sense of selflessness. Yet it’s not a matter of trying to do more selfless acts for others. But it is more a matter of having experienced what it’s like in our own lives to really need someone else … to need someone to listen, to need someone to tell it to, to need someone to be present with us in the moment at hand and not “a thousand other places” instead. And because we have experienced that we have come to realize that when we are truly with someone in that moment we have nowhere else more important to be. We have come to understand in that moment that we need to put aside the phone, the computer, the list in our heads numbering all the other things we “need” to get done that day. In order to be fully in that moment with someone else who needs us, and in order to fully empathize with their current situation, it often takes an extreme amount of patience and an extreme amount of understanding. But this only happens when we can intentionally think of those people who have been generously patient with us, listening and allowing us to share the matters lying within our hearts.
As Henri Nouwen writes in Compassion: Patience means to enter actively into the thick of life and to fully bear the suffering within and around us. Patience is the capacity to see, hear, touch, taste and smell as fully as possible the inner and outer events of our lives. It is to enter our lives with open eyes, ears and hands so that we really know what is happening.