What is Patience?

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12).

As we journeyed with Oliver through his cancer and death, this verse took on a new depth of meaning for me. The second part, especially, was something I worked on. I interpreted it as handling the “affliction” as calmly as possible. Being able to wait for answers that will never come in this world, such as why a six-year-old has to suffer. However, as I look more into the idea of “patience” I realize my interpretation of it is lacking.

Giorgio Vasari, 1542
Giorgio Vasari, 1542

According to everyone’s favorite site, the Online Etymology Dictionary, “patience” (a noun) has an interesting history. c. 1200, pacience, “quality of being willing to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune, suffering, etc.,” from Old French pacience “patience; sufferance, permission” (12c.) and directly from Latin patientia “the quality of suffering or enduring; submission,” also “indulgence, leniency; humility; submissiveness; submission to lust;” literally “quality of suffering.”

Now that I’ve made my History of the English Language professor happy, it only follows that I should make my Latin teacher happy. When we focus on the Latin “patientia” we understand that “patience” can refer to the “quality of suffering.” I’ve always interpreted “patience” as, well, being patient! Waiting calmly and quietly for time to pass, which is clearly part of the word’s history.

But I’ve never considered it as the “quality of suffering.” What an interesting and thought-provoking phrase — the “quality of suffering.” Suffering can certainly be something we create for ourselves, but often we understand it to be how we respond to an outside force. In the case of our family, the suffering was the cancer he suffered and, after his death, the grief our family suffered. How do we approach such suffering with the idea of “quality.”

“Quality” has a range of definitions, but we usually think of it as a “degree of goodness.” Some things are of higher quality than others. Applied to suffering, does this mean some suffering is better than other suffering? I am bold enough to say, in this world where we pretend not to judge, that some suffering is more intense than others. An extreme example would be the suffering caused by the death of a goldfish compared to the death of my son. A child may suffer from the loss of a goldfish, but the suffering I have from my son’s death is clearly more intense. Does that mean it is of a higher quality? Is there a degree of goodness or lack thereof that makes my suffering different?

Perhaps what quality of suffering refers to here is not the suffering imposed upon us (e.g. my son’s death) but the suffering I have in response to that death. The suffering that is my internal reaction to an outside force.

My reaction to the suffering of grief, my own quality of suffering, is something that I can change. I cannot change my son’s death (and there is not much I wouldn’t do to reverse that), but I can examine my own suffering. This is not to say that suffering does not overwhelm us and take control of us. Right after his death, our family’s focus was on surviving, not the “quality of suffering.” But as we approach the seventh anniversary of his death, and I still suffer, has the quality of my suffering changed?

It has. Let me offer a loud caveat here that I often feel the need to shout: there is no silver lining in my son’s death. None. If his death brought a cure for all cancer, I would still say it was not worth it. It was evil. It was wrong. That said, the fact that he did die and we do suffer requires me to examine my suffering. Am I a better person because of the suffering I have endured? Absolutely. I am far more empathic than I was before to others suffering for a variety of reasons. I can write about my suffering and perhaps offer others hope and support. I know not to take the “little” things in life — a hug from my son, an “I love you,” or a quiet giggle as we cuddle on the couch — for granted. And, as I delve into the world of memento mori, “remember your death,” I realize that I approach my own life and death differently in the light of my suffering.

Romans 12:!2

Returning to Romans 12:12, and being “patient in affliction,” I now know that my interpretation of it being one of “waiting” or “getting through” affliction does not go far enough. The affliction is what is thrown on me, but the “quality of suffering,” the “patience” I respond with should not be a passive act. Perhaps this is why the third part of the verse is a call to be active, to be “faithful in prayer.”

Suffering can be endured, but the quality of suffering is found in our active response to it. Prayer is certainly an active response. It is a way of communicating, of sharing our fears, hopes, and anger, of listening for God’s word, of silently participating in the suffering of Christ, of allowing us to see that Christ understands our suffering.

The quality of suffering, our patience in affliction, requires us to engage our suffering and to grow from it. “Don’t waste your suffering,” said Saint John Paul II. That we can judge ourselves to be successful can be seen in how we allow ourselves to either be driven from God in our suffering or to be drawn closer to God as a result.

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