As the world reflects on Nelson Mandela’s iconic legacy, one major narrative of his heroic story is his patience. We revere his superhuman strength and tenacity throughout his struggle to achieve the Herculean task of building democracy and peace, liberty and equality.
But what is often missing from this narrative is what patience means. We know what Mandela did — what he dreamed, how he struggled, and what he achieved. And we understand the extent of his plight to carry out his vision for South Africa, and the world. Yet the patience that Mandela exemplified was not merely a matter of time and effort. Mandela’s patience cannot be simply summarized as the ability to tolerate and wait.
Linguistically, patience is derived from old French pacience (“quality of being patient in suffering”) and Latin patientia (“patience, endurance, submission; quality of suffering”). What this etymological origin tells us is two-fold. First, patience involves more than just waiting. Second, patience has been associated with the experience of suffering. In other words: patience is neither enjoyable nor kind to us, and its existence gives us a great deal of pain.
However, we do not need to perceive patience so negatively. We have misunderstood the nature of patience, and in doing so we have wronged the virtue of patience to our character.
Patience is also more than just the negative experience of suffering. Patience is not a singular emotion or process: it embodies a great number of attributes.
Patience is faith. Patience is courage. Patience is hope
Patience is tending to one’s garden, watering a row of fragile, young plants day after day until their roots become firmly established in well-nourished soil and the sprouts bloom into flowers. Patience is making a meal, preparing an eclectic assortment of ingredients and standing over the stove, coddling those distinct ingredients to blend into a mouth-watering dish. Patience is working out in the gym or outside, pounding that treadmill, that pavement to achieve the 5k, shed those pounds, or simply stay healthy.
Patience is forgiveness. Patience is compassion. Patience is selflessness.
Patience is supporting a loved one, investing in tolerance and unconditional love even when all the deposited trust in the relationship has become bankrupt. Patience is attending to oneself, cheering on and fulfilling one’s own dreams and desires.
Patience is conviction. Patience is sacrifice. Patience is discipline.
Patience is acknowledging what can be achieved and what cannot be achieved, distinguishing between the possible and impossible in one’s personal life and in society. Patience is working towards the seemingly impossible, even in the recognition that perhaps one will not be able to see the impossible that will very well become the possible in the future.
This is what Mandela’s patience teaches us about the complex nature of patience.
But a Moses does not live to see the promised land—and maybe it can never be found.
(Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker)