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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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April 12th, 2012

What Works: Waiting patiently


One of the most popular columns I’ve ever written is about struggling with being on time. It led to a TV interview and over two years later people still regularly bring it up in conversation. But working on your own on-timeness can lead to an interesting new issue: being on time when others are not.

It’s one thing to be on time and have everything go smoothly. You can point to your on-timeness and feel a sense of self-satisfaction at having contributed to the proper flow of the universe by having aligned yourself with the way things are meant to be. Call it spiritual pride or call it enjoying the fruits of “skillful means,” we all enjoy it when we do the right thing and things go our way. But what about when you are on time and someone else isn’t?

There’s a long-distance bus I catch fairly often in the summer coming back to the city at the end of the weekend. My stop is in the middle of its route and, almost every time, the bus is about 10 minutes late. The place we wait isn’t covered and today it was 15 minutes late, in pouring rain. This is not convenient. I know it will probably be late, but I still have to make sure I’m there on time because every once in a while it is, and it doesn’t wait around for me if I’m late.

When the scheduled time arrives and the bus doesn’t, I see other travelers start checking the time. (I was going to say “checking their watches” but most people don’t check watches anymore, they check cell phones.) At first they do this as if to check their internal clock: “Isn’t it 11:50 yet? I’m sure it must be.” As the minutes tick by, the time checking starts getting more dramatic, as if to communicate: “You all see that the scheduled time is past and the bus isn’t here, right?!”

Often, if and how much I’m bothered by waiting is in direct proportion to how much distress I went through to be there on time.

But the bus will arrive when it arrives no matter what we do. And if it’s on time and I’m late I’ll miss it. There’s no choice to make. Or action to hurry it up. Simple as that.

Like pressing the elevator button more than once, all the street theater has no effect on the result.

So I wait.

The outraged ego

Often patientily. Somtimes not quite. I’ve noticed that if and how much I’m bothered by waiting is in direct proportion to how much distress I went through to be there on time. If I am there in plenty of time and stroll comfortably up to the stop and join the first people in line, then all is right in the world. But if I miscalculate or something comes up at the last minute and I end up scrambling to get to the bus stop in time, anxious the whole way that it will be on time and I’ll miss it by a minute (there isn’t another one for hours) and then I end up waiting around, my ego is outraged. I didn’t need to rush! I didn’t need to stress myself out! My time is valuable; how dare they waste it!

This line of thinking veers into the magical when I start blaming the late bus for the fact that I am agitated from running late and having to rush. This doesn’t even make sense — but this is where the mind goes.

And being upset is all the crazier because, what actually happens if I’m on time and the bus is late? Well, I spend ten minutes enjoying the day (when it’s not raining), sometimes getting into an interesting conversation with one of the others waiting. It’s no hardship at all. It doesn’t even mean I’ll get home late; the bus makes up the time along the way.

Enjoying the present moment

Being upset is all the crazier because, what actually happens if I’m on time and the bus is late? Well, I spend ten minutes enjoying the day, sometimes getting into an interesting conversation with one of the others waiting.

Essentially, these thoughts all boil down to: I’m more important than anyone else; more important than the bus company having a schedule that helps them stay profitable; more important than the bus staying at a safe speed before it gets to my stop; more important than any human problems or equipment issues that contributed to the delay.

It doesn’t matter if you’re waiting for a bus or an elevator, for your turn in a line, or for that friend who often runs a little behind, the fact remains that working yourself up about it does no good.

So here’s what I propose: The next time you are waiting for someone or something and you find yourself getting irritated at them and the universe, pause, take a deep breath, perhaps spend a minute imagining that there might be a good reason they’re late (though that’s not important), and turn your attention to enjoying the present moment. If that doesn’t quite do it, pull out the big guns and pray for patience.

If you’re waiting with other people, smile at one of them or start a conversation. If there’s something you could be doing, like checking email or reading, you could turn your attention to that, though just being in the present moment is even better.

Often the irritation just evaporates. It was built on nothing but air in the first place.

What is your experience with waiting? Have you found other ways to be patient? Does it drive you crazy? Share below in the comments.

This column was originally published on August 25, 2011.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Jennifer

    @ Gaby and Sierra,

    Keep praying, because God hears your prayers. I prayed and cried many nights when I was in my late 20s up until I was 32, when my husband finally entered into my life. In my mind, I had certain qualities that I wanted a husband to have, and he had all of these (except for being able to live with cats- ha) and more than what I had looked for. God knew that we needed each other. We both patiently waited and finally met. Right now, my husband and I are waiting on being able to have a baby. It’s not coming as easily as we had hoped, but part of what keeps us waiting is remembering how good God was to bring us together, and His timing is perfect. I pray that you both find your men soon. I know it is hard.

  • Gaby

    @Sierra- your comment was from nearly a year ago. The chance that you see my response is small, but has he arrived yet? I’m several years younger than you are, but I feel the same way. And I’m praying white-knuckles: for him to arrive, that I recognize him when he comes, that I can focus on other more important things, that I can have more patience, etc.
    @Phil- did you ever write a column on spiritual patience, or how to work actively but let God’s plan happen? Can you offer any advice in that regard? I love your columns, by the way!

  • Scott Morris

    I have a sheet at home that has a person asking God for things. One of them was the person asked for patience, God’s answer was “No, patience is earned”. The most important text was at the very end, “God, please teach me to love as you would have me do, God answered “‘That I can do.'”

  • Zachary Hubbard

    Patience has never been my strength. Being a long distance commuter in Virginia for over five years didn’t help. I had to constantly ask God to give me patience during my treacherous drives to work and back to my home. After many years, I have finally learned that no matter what happens to disrupt my life, I’m always at the place where God wants me to be at that particular moment in time. Accepting this helps me to shift my focus from myself and look at what’s going on around me. God will lead you by the Holy Spirit if you forget about what you want and instead begin paying attention to what goes on around you.

  • Gary C

    I nearly always have a book, just in case.

  • jedesto

    I begin with “time is money” and go from there to “do I spend it wisely?” Pretty soon the wait is over.

  • Ken Maher

    Being on time is merely a matter of respect for and commitment to the other(s) whom you are meeting. Your respect and commitment should have nothing to do with theirs, just like the size of your Christmas present to someone should have nothing to do with the size of theirs to you. If others are late, use the time to pray or meditate rather than feeling sorry for yourself.

  • Theresa Henderson

    I’d contact the bus company and inform them of each time the bus was late and petition that they have a covered area built there because of the number of folks who wait there. Get the folks to sign it too. I’m a lot more patient when sometimes i am part of a solution.

  • Catholic

    @Sierra: I’m not sure if you’ll read this — but I just had to respond! Keep praying, even white-knuckles if you have to. Don’t worry, not only is God listening, He’s taking every single wish, every hope, every dream just for you two. When He’s ready to draw you two together, not only will you be so happy to meet him (don’t forget to pray you recognize him, BTW!) — you’ll get to spend the rest of your life getting to know him. You ain’t seen nuthin’ on patience yet!

    “Jesus replied, ‘You believe that just because I said: I saw you under the fig tree. You are going to see greater things than that.'” – John 1:50

    @PhilFoxRose: Thank you again for another great article about the spirituality of time!

  • kelly damude

    I enjoyed this article so much, it is exactly what I’ve been trying to do for years & years! I’m working on my hubby now, as he’s not quite there yet. :) Life’s too short to waste time being grumpy about things we have no control over, so BE in the moment & make it count. Amen!

  • Ginny Kubitz Moyer

    I’m one of those people who works hard to be punctual all the time, largely because that’s how I was raised. That said, I have often been in situations where freeway traffic is crawling along, which is pretty high on the frustration-meter. In those situations, there really IS nothing to do but just let go and crawl right along with it. That requires a certain kind of surrender, which is not easy for me … but it’s a skill worth cultivating. When I stop fighting it and just let it go, I can feel my stress level drop dramatically. “It is what it is” is a very helpful mantra for me, in those situations.

  • Emily

    I’ve found that not wearing a watch really helps me with the time aspect. You’re right no one checks a watch anymore either, they check cell phones, but I can’t do that most of the time. Not having an easily accessible clock forces me to take on the philosophy that “i’ll get there when I am meant to get there.” and there are clocks everywhere else to keep you on task for those important appointments.

    I also think of saying that mantra “get there when i’ll get there” is like a little prayer to the Holy Spirit saying, I trust you, guide me. It has given me the best relief when I used to have road rage.

  • Sierra McConnell

    Probably not what you’re looking for, but I’ve been waiting since I was a child for the person I’ve been looking for. Still, they’re just not here yet. All the clock checking in the world isn’t going to get him here. Where /is/ he? I’ll be 30 next month, and at this rate, I’ll be dead and still childless by the time he shows up. How is that for patience?

    Honestly. Why have I waited this long for one person who I know is coming, but I just can’t find? It’s not like a bus, it’s much bigger. But still waiting. C’mon God. I know men don’t like to ask directions but he can’t be that darn stubborn…

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