July 8, 2003, Tuesday
HEALTH & FITNESS
By Jane E. Brody
I learned, for example, to allow more time, not less, to get to places; not to leave important tasks to the last minute; and to resist doing one more thing before leaving the house, thus making myself anxious, and often late, even before starting out.
But there was one trait that I never learned: patience. Traffic jams, creepy drivers, incompetent salesclerks, repair workers who did not come when they said they would, long lines and computer glitches continued to drive me up the wall. I was constantly telling my children ''hurry up,'' a phrase that only prompted them to slow down. I would often think, ''If I ran the world, it would be far more logical and efficient.''
Now another book, ''The Power of Patience'' by M. J. Ryan, just published by Broadway Books ($14.95), has opened my eyes to the benefits of learning to be more patient, to me and those around me.
Hazards of Impatience
Everything in modern life seems geared toward ever-greater speed -- faster computers, faster Internet access, faster microwave ovens, faster trains, faster bicycles and faster cars with wider and straighter roads that allow us to drive even faster. (Do you hold your hand on the microwave door while something is heating?) We live in an impatient age, wanting and trying to make everything and everyone around us move faster at a pace we dictate.
But as I have learned (and instinctively knew), impatience is not good for us mentally or physically. It causes stress, which weakens the immune system, irritates the stomach, raises blood pressure, strains the heart and strains relationships. I see now that my home life and my demeanor would have been a lot more pleasant had I learned the lessons in Ms. Ryan's book long ago.
Hurrying increases the risk of errors and accidents, which can end up costing more time than the rush saved.
Patience allows you to remain cool and rational -- to think clearly -- under stress, to take the foibles and annoying behaviors of others in stride and perhaps even find them amusing.
Patience, Ms. Ryan explains, ''is a lot about what you don't do.''
''It's about holding back when you want to let loose, putting up with something you'd rather not and waiting for something to happen rather than forcing it along,'' she says. ''Not everything can be accomplished through willpower. Sometimes what we need is a bit of wait power.''
Patience is also the glue that holds society together -- the essence of ''diplomacy and civility, lawfulness and civil order,'' Ms. Ryan states. ''Without it, people can't work together and society can't function at all.''
Learning to Be Patient
Impatience is neither a character flaw nor an inherent personality trait, Ms. Ryan says. It is a habit. Habits are learned, and they can be unlearned, replaced by new, more wholesome and productive habits. Changing habits requires insight, motivation, practice and time. New habits are not learned overnight, so don't be too hard on yourself when you slip back into the old ''can't you move faster or do things my way?'' routine.
Becoming more patient can help you be more effective, less overwhelmed, less worried and angry, kinder, calmer, more tolerant, more loving and more lovable. You will be less the person who tries repeatedly to reshape the world in your image and more someone who can roll with the punches.
Patience, as Ms. Ryan notes, also increases the chances that we will get what we want, ''because when we're patient, we treat other people decently, which in turn increases the possibility that they will respond in kind.''
The squeaky wheel often gets a kick, not grease.
Start by remembering that each person is different; no one sees and does things exactly as you do. And because opposites often attract, chances are your chosen one is quite a different being, and you -- like me -- have been trying to remake your mate to do everything the way you would, from washing the dishes to driving the car. The less time you spend judging others, the more trusting and happier you will be and the more competent and appreciated others will feel.
I used to say of a dear friend that his compulsions would have driven me crazy had I married him. But the wonderful, patient women he married is not at all disturbed by them; she sees them as part of his charming uniqueness. As Ms. Ryan put it, ''The secret to happiness in love may be to appreciate as delightful those little foibles that otherwise can be so annoying.''
A result of this kind of patience is empathy, an appreciation for individuality, enabling you to live more harmoniously with those around you. Although he did not learn it from me, I am repeatedly struck by the patient way my son Erik, a full-time parent in a small apartment, deals with his 3-year-old twins.
He does not just make rules, he explains them and the potential consequences of not following them. He tells the boys when things are likely to happen (dessert comes after dinner, not before), where things belong and why, and warns them when his patience is wearing thin.
The boys, in turn, are remarkably well behaved; they put toys back in their proper places and are nearly always willing and able to wait patiently to get what they want.
In cultivating patience, it helps to understand why some things push your buttons. Ask yourself when this happens why you find the situation so upsetting, then try to separate what is truly important to you from things that make little or no difference. What will really happen if you miss a deadline or if that traffic jam makes you an hour late. (Isn't this why we have cellphones?)
Attitude is everything. Reframe situations that test your patience to find ways of looking at things that will improve the outcome.
Prepare mentally and physically for circumstances that try patience. Take along something to read or do when you may have to wait in line or wait for a friend or when you are stuck on the subway. Stock the car with CD's or recordings of books that can transport you to a more comforting place in a traffic jam. If nothing else, play mental games with yourself.
Remind yourself often that the world is not all about you, but rather that you are part of a much larger community with disparate interests and styles. Ask yourself periodically, ''Who appointed you God?''
When you sense that you're about to lose patience, take several deep breaths and count to 10 before speaking or acting.
Take an exercise break to relieve irritability and tension. Eat meals on time, with wholesome snacks in between if you get hungry. For most of us, patience wears thin when our blood sugar is low. Likewise, avoid excess caffeine, which can make you jittery and irritable. (Limit it to 200 milligrams a day, the amount in two regular cups of coffee.)
And get enough sleep. Americans, me included, shortchange ourselves by an hour and a half of sleep a day. Like an overtired child, an overtired adult cannot cope well with frustration.
CAPTIONS: Drawing (Toni Zules)