I never thought I would be a day counter. You know, someone who marks days off the calendar as they wait for some big event to occur. Well, I’ve become one. As of today, I have only 336 days left until I become retirement eligible. That’s not to say I will immediately retire then, but at least at that point I can retire without losing certain benefits, and can then adopt my friend’s philosophy: I will continue to work until I have two bad days in a row. If things stay the way they are now, that will take probably no more than three days.
In our fast-paced world of instant everything and miniscule attention spans, showing patience is a lost art – but a sometimes needed one, often because we don’t have a choice. Years ago, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with four year-old to six year-old children. He offered the children a marshmallow, but if they could wait until he returned 15 minutes later, he would give them two marshmallows. Some children ate the treat immediately. Most could wait a little while, but not even close to the fifteen-minute requirement. Only about a third of the kids could wait for the extra treat. Even more interesting, those children who could wait ended up, in their later years, having higher SAT scores, higher education attainment, lower body mass indexes, better relationships with others, and generally fewer personal problems.
One of my all-time favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption.[i] It is a movie that teaches us many things, including patience. Andy Dufresne is a successful banker who is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at the Shawshank State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover. The only problem is he didn’t commit the crime. Knowing he is innocent, how does Andy find any satisfaction living in prison with two life sentences hanging over him? He makes the best of his circumstances, keeping a long-term, bigger picture perspective, while finding whatever joy he can in the moment – like enjoying a moment of opera (as narrated by his best friend in prison, Red):
Many years ago I worked at a job I hated. I hated it to the point I was an eyelash away from giving up the practice of law entirely and trying something – anything – different. A friend, who knew of my struggles, came to me and said, “I am going to make you the object of my prayers. I am going to pray for you every day until you find a new job.” I was humbled. Why would anyone do this for me, particularly day after day? I also knew this woman was very spiritual, and if God would listen to anyone, He would listen to her. She then avoided me for several weeks. I didn’t press it, thinking maybe she had changed her mind. Finally, she came to me and said, “I’m sorry, but it looks like you won’t be getting a new job soon. God has told me there were still some things you need to learn here.”
That was not the answer I wanted to hear. But I gutted out the job for another couple of years – until my boss fired me because I was unwilling to relocate to Yemen (yes, the Yemen in the Middle East that is a haven for terrorists). But I learned from that. I learned empathy for others who had lost jobs, realizing it isn’t always bad performers who get let go. I also learned, while unemployed, to better distinguish the difference between wants and needs. After six months of unemployment, I found a job with a small international oil and gas company but learned quickly I didn’t really enjoy international oil and gas law. And then things started to change. I found a new job at a small company where I was the only attorney. There, I experienced projects that helped me become more than just an oil and gas lawyer. And then I found my dream job. Looking back, I realized I had to go through several years of learning experiences to be ready for the job I ultimately wanted, and was now trained for. Unfortunately, my dream job only lasted about three years before a takeover started to change things again. And now I’m counting the days until I’m retirement eligible – but still learning valuable lessons, including more patience.
For Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, every time things started to get better for him, something bad would happen. But he remained patient, always making the best of one bad situation after another until one day this happens:
It took Andy Dufresne almost 20 years to find freedom, a handful of dirt and clay at a time. Here is how he did it:
But tunneling through the walls of Shawshank was only half the battle. The other half didn’t take twenty years, but might have been just as hard.
Forrest Gump reminds us that shit happens. As life dumps on us (as it always does), let’s remember, as Red might say, we must crawl through a river of shit until we come out clean on the other side. So how do we learn to be patient? I’m not really an expert, but here are a few ideas:
- Remember that life is really a series of stimuli and our reactions to those stimuli. If we can lengthen the gap between a stimulus and our reaction to it, our reactions will be more appropriate and well thought out.
- Keep a long term perspective, but enjoy the journey. Even in the middle of being dumped on by life, we can find moments of joy and learning.
- Remember that life is constantly changing. Like the weather, if you don’t like where you are in life, wait awhile; things will change.
- Finally, don’t think of things that happen to you as either good or bad, it’s just life. And as Red and Andy would say, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
I hope we all choose living.
[i] The Shawshank Redemption
- Production Co.: Castle Rock Entertainment
- Director: Frank Darabont
- Writers: Frank Darabont (based on the short story by Stephen King)
- Stars: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman and Bob Gunton
- Release date: October 14, 1994