Struggling with impatience… What can I do?

Dear Father John, I have been working on my spiritual life for a long time. But no matter how much I work on it, I find myself falling into impatience again and again. I try and try, but can’t seem to be patient. What am I doing wrong?

You will not like the answer to this question, but I will try to answer it anyway. There are two things you may be doing wrong – or you may be doing both of them.

Going to the Root

First, you may be chopping off the visible stems of this weed in the garden of your soul, without digging up the roots. We all have a unique combination of selfish tendencies, and they express themselves in a unique combination of manifestations. Just like a big weed with a lot of stems and branches. We have all had the experience of pulling up weeds. We know that if you don’t get the root out, the weed will just grow right up again. From your question, it seems that you tend to consider impatience to be the root of your selfishness. Chances are, that is not the case. Impatience is one of the many offspring of the capital sin of pride, which is a disordered attachment to one’s own excellence. You get impatient because deep down you have a strong tendency to think you are so smart, sharp, and gifted that you should be able to manage yourself and all the circumstances around you with perfect elegance. (I told you that you weren’t going to like this answer.) Therefore, you will never be able to overcome your impatient patterns of behavior simply by ordering yourself to become more patient. You will have tiny flashes of patience if you follow that strategy, but that’s it. What you really need to do is work positively on growing in the virtue of humility. Humility will strike at your impatience where it is rooted.

How do you grow in humility?

  1. Ask for the grace, first of all, every day.
  2. Secondly, continue your determined commitment to mental prayer, meditating on the life and words of Jesus, who is the perfect model of humility.
  3. Thirdly, increase your conscientious use of the sacraments of confession and Communion.
  4. Finally, never let a day go by without making AT LEAST one small, HIDDEN act of self-denial, e.g. purposely eating another helping of something you don’t like, purposely not turning on the radio for the first five minutes of your commute, purposely not responding to someone who unfairly criticizes you…

Great Expectations

In the second place, your expectations may be wrong. Growth in any virtue does not follow a Hollywoodian schedule. In Hollywood, you can go from chump to champion in just two hours, like Peter Parker or Rocky Balboa. In real life, growth in holiness and virtue takes a long time and happens gradually. This is why Jesus always used parables of seeds and growing things. If we sit and watch a seed grow, nothing seems to happen. But in fact, a lot is happening, if the parameters for growth (soil, water, sunlight) are present. In our spiritual lives, we too often want to see the fully matured fruit right now. Well, the fully matured fruit will not be seen this side of eternity. Sorry, that’s just the way it is! As the Book of Job puts it, in the first verse of Chapter 7: “Does not man have hard service on earth? Are not his days like those of a hired man?”

Frustration is almost always a function of expectations. If you have been working seriously on becoming a more patient person, following the example of Christ more closely, I can guarantee that you are more patient today than you were five years ago. Guaranteed. I would bet my life on it. So don’t let the devil trick you into being frustrated with gradually becoming more and more patient, just because you aren’t perfect yet. Instead, every time you fall, just brush yourself off, look up to heaven, and say, “You see what a pile of dust and ashes I am, Lord? Thanks for putting up with me. I know you’ll never give up on me; help me never to give up on you.”

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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