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The Hebrew Word For Patience


“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” the Peter Finch character screams in the movie Network, one of the more memorable moments in cinematic history. In contemporary U.S. culture, it often seems as if speaking your mind, no matter how hurtful, and no matter what the consequences, is considered a virtue. That’s a problem!

An acquaintance of mine who is an attorney recently boasted: “You would have been so proud of me! The clerk at the office of records kept calling up people who had signed in after me. When I went up to inquire, she told me that she didn’t have to answer to me and turned her back to me. She kept me waiting a long time. So I called the Governor’s office in Harrisburg, and the clerk no longer has a job.”

An obese woman bumped into a friend on a downtown sidewalk. “I told her, ‘Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you fat cow.’” He, too, was proud of himself.

I’m proud of neither of them. Their reports assume that we all agree that it’s better to speak up for yourself rather than allowing yourself to be pushed around. (Thank you, John Wayne and the Hollywood Western.) I can identify with them in each of those circumstances. I can get enraged when I’m mistreated by a clerk or jostled by a fellow pedestrian. I sometimes express my anger. But I don’t think that is the best way to increase kindness and holiness in the world, and I don’t think it is the path to increasing inner peace.

The Hebrew word for patience is savlanut (סבלנות). The root, s-v-l (ס-ב-ל), literally means “to bear” or “to suffer.” The virtue is to bear or suffer something unpleasant or painful, without increasing the suffering. I seek to treat all people as though they are created in the divine image. I try to act lovingly towards them, even if it hurts. I assume they are doing the best they can. If they are misbehaving, I assume that they are themselves in pain, and I try to forgive them.

“Patience,” to my ear, has a different connotation in its contemporary North American usage. It is something you lose, something you possess in limited quantity. If you are patient, you do not get annoyed during a delay, do not get angry when someone lets you down, do not explode when someone attacks you. Rather, you say and do nothing. You hold it in—until you can’t suppress your feelings any longer. Then, with Peter Finch and my friends, you let it out because you just can’t take it anymore.

What if instead of suppressing my anger or upset, I notice those feelings as they arise, so that I am able to consider the loving and wise way to address the cause of my pain? What if I begin by turning toward my wound compassionately? What if I seek to view the offending party as human, flawed, in pain? What if I am eventually able to discover a way to confront the other person in a way that allows her or him to hear my concern and my desire to forgive and reconcile? In my view, this approach requires a lot more strength than erupting or swinging wildly when someone offends me.

Not that I think this is easy to do. Recently, it took me over three years to figure out how to do this with someone who is very close to me. She had hurt me deeply, so much so that it was too painful for me even to talk on the phone. I certainly couldn’t bear to be in her presence. I was resolved not to say or do anything hurtful to her out of my anger, but I could not find a way to move forward. She wanted very much to reconcile, but her attempts to do so inevitably led her to act in ways that were hurtful that she couldn’t see.

Finally, it came to me that she was never going to figure this out herself, but that I could tell her what I needed from her—what I needed her to say (“I’m sorry that I caused you so much pain.”) and do. When I told her, she was grateful and happy to extend herself.

Reflecting back on the experience, I learn that by bearing the pain caused by another without swinging back, I can also be empowered. As long as I feel like an injured victim, I will either express my anger or to suppress it. But if I’m able to see myself as an agent who can change a situation, I have another choice—to act out of care and love, reaching out to reconnect and heal.

This, I think, is the work that I—and maybe all of us—are called to do: increase the holiness that comes from loving and constructive interactions. It is work that requires us to bear a substantial amount of suffering until we are able to act out of love, compassion, and openheartedness.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://www.firstdaypress.org/the-hebrew-word-for-patience.

Spiritual Practice
Professor Emeritus of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality; Founding Director, Jewish Spiritual Direction Program; Director, Evolve: Groundbreaking Conversations

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