Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.

#6: Patience, or How to Overcome Road Rage
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com

You’re driving to an important meeting but traffic refuses to cooperate and you hit gridlock. “Who are all these people messing up my life?” you shout, infuriated. “Get off the road! NOW!”

From a Jewish perspective, traffic is not a meaningless nuisance, but rather a tool for developing patience. It’s a sign to calm down get out of the anxiety-ridden state of “I must get to the meeting!” Stop. Breathe. Focus on the moment. And say the word “patience” – slowly, and with patience.

The Hebrew word for “patience” – savlanut – refers to the capacity to endure difficulty or inconvenience without complaint.

We’d like to believe that life will unfold in the way we imagine. When reality proves different, it signals our loss of control.

We can get stressed out, lose patience and next thing you know – boom – we’re laying on the horn and pounding the dashboard.

At the root of impatience is the erroneous belief that we have full control of our lives. We need reminders that ultimately God, not us, is in control.

The patient mindset says: “This moment is God’s will. If it causes inconvenience, that’s God’s way of telling me to reconsider my current approach.”

Instead of getting frustrated, stop and ask yourself: Why is this happening? You may not always discover the answer, but the very search is guaranteed to reveal new insights into yourself.

Patience with Others

Nobody’s perfect. And we each have a unique way of expressing that imperfection: slow, stubborn, sloppy, moody, argumentative, incompetent…

We hear a lot these days about “tolerance” – accepting others as they are. You can’t treat people as an obstacle course: watch out, avoid him, manipulate him, score points.

That’s why losing one’s temper is so destructive. It says to the other person: “I do not accept you. I will not tolerate you.” It’s a rejection of the person himself.

The way to overcome this negative habit is to decide: Whomever I encounter, I will exercise patience and understanding. I will swallow my criticism and complaints. I will bear that additional burden and cut them slack.

Indeed, savlanut (patience) is derived from the Hebrew root sabal, meaning “one who tolerates a burden.”

Imagine teaching a baby to walk. If they don’t catch on right away, do we lose patience and yell? Of course not. So too with adults: We must tolerate others’ shortcomings, as exhibited by the Talmudic sage Rabbi Praida who taught the same lesson 400 times until his student finally understood.

I’m willing to conform to your pace because our time together has intrinsic value.

One way to increase your level of patience is to assist someone, perhaps an elderly person, who moves slowly. Operate at their pace, without making them feel rushed. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin suggests calmly saying, “Please take your time. Go at a pace you feel comfortable with.” It’s a form of respecting others: I’m willing to conform to your pace because our time together has intrinsic value.

This approach is particularly important in relating to our parents – who demonstrated years of patience in teaching us new skills, cleaning up our many messes, and reading us the same book for the thousandth time. When a child displays patience toward a parent, it helps bring that relationship full circle.

Patience with Self

For some, the greatest challenge of all is patience with self. We recognize our own capability for greatness – so when we fail to actualize that vision NOW, we are disappointed.

Stop beating yourself up. Nobody’s perfect. There are roadblocks and limitations. Things take time.

Just as a child goes through stages of development, so too life is a process – a long journey toward our chosen destiny. Do you dream of owning a billion-dollar company? Of being a thoughtful, caring person? It can happen, but don’t expect it overnight.

That’s why it’s so important to take pleasure in our accomplishments. When we appreciate the progress we’ve already made, it provides motivation for the long haul.

Patience with God

One of the great forces in the world today is the human drive for independence. We fiercely guard personal liberties and prefer to make our own decisions about everything.

Yet under God’s timetable, things don’t always go precisely as we envision. Every beat of the heart is another electrical pulse, reminding us that God has His own pace.

When an event occurs contrary to our expectation, the tendency is to perceive it as a “conspiratorial attack on our independence.” Doing so rejects the essential authority of God Who arranged these events.

That’s why the Talmud (Shabbat 105b) describes anger as akin to a complete rejection of God. Both stem from the attitude of: “I’m running the world. How dare anything run differently than my desire!”

Turn your expectations into preference. If things work out differently, it’s not the end of the world. Rather it’s an opportunity to adjust and remember that Someone besides me runs the show.

We can plan, but only to a point. While in the moment, let the flow overtake you. In doing so, we leave open the possibility of something unexpected happening – something better than you imagined possible!

That’s why Moses, “the most humble person on Earth,” was also the most closely connected to God. It’s two sides of the same coin: Humility is the epitome of savlanut, of letting God set the terms and conditions. (Numbers 12:3, with Rashi)

Even God is described as showing patience (Exodus 34:6 – “erech apayim”).

A Time for Impatience

While God has His plan, that doesn’t mean we should remain passive. God builds flexibility into His plan, to accommodate our own contributions. Our personal responsibility demands that we devise a strategic plan and endeavor to proactively set the trajectory of our lives.

If God has His own timetable, how do our actions help? In reference to the Messianic Era, the prophet Isaiah quotes God as saying: B’ita achishena – “in its appointed time, I will hasten it” (Isaiah 60:22). In other words, while the inevitable will occur in its proper time, our actions can hasten the process. We can shorten the wait by showing we care enough to do something about it.

Putting it into Practice

Today, mastering patience is more difficult than ever. Technology streams at our fingertips, breeding the illusion of control. We are immersed in a lifestyle of “instantaneous-ism” where immediacy is the norm.

Embrace the present moment.

The antidote to impatience is to embrace the present moment. Employ mindfulness to win this spiritual battle and counteract the instantaneous urge. Here are some tips how:

  • Consciously slow the pace. Rabbi Alexander Ziskind (19thcentury Europe) had the custom of breaking his Yom Kippur fast with boney fish. This forced him to eat slowly and not gorge. In the throes of hunger, the rabbi was determined to remain patient.
  • First thing in the morning, when you swing your feet off the bed, say: “On your planet, God, I let you plan it.”
  • When something unexpected happens in the course of the day, recognize the higher providential purpose, and say aloud: “This is exactly where I need to be.”

A classic Chasidic story tells of the rabbi who obtained special fabric to sew into a Tallit Katan, the fringed undergarment that slips over one’s head like a poncho. The rabbi gave the precious fabric to the tailor, who then mistakenly cut two large holes in the fabric. When the tailor sheepishly delivered the defective garment, the rabbi replied: “Actually, the garment is supposed to have two holes – one for my head, and the other to keep me from getting angry.”

So whether you’re stuck listening to the long-winded recollections of an elderly neighbor, or your kid throws up all over the floor, or the webpage is slow to loading… never view a frustrating delay or obstacle as “disturbing my perfect life.”

Rather, accept these aggravations as opportunities – large and small – to grapple, grow, and master the next level of patience and tolerance.

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