The older I get, the more I’ve tried to be patient.

Little things that once drove me to distraction – the guy ahead of me who finishes filling up with gas and then heads into the gas-station store without first moving his vehicle; the “check engine” light that goes on just as I depart the car dealership – lately feel more like minor bumps in road, not worth getting into a lather about.

But then last week, I got news that, while good, had me slowly counting to 10 … and counting again … and again.

“We got vaccine appointments for tomorrow!” my sister texted, referring to herself and her husband.

“Hooray!!” my wife and I texted back.

They live in Virginia. So do my older brother and his wife. All four are between the ages of 65 and 70 and have now received their first COVID-19 vaccinations.

And we haven’t.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, our shots are still weeks away at best. Which makes it harder and harder with each passing day to be … what’s the word … patient.

“We (Americans) have not been practicing well for this moment,” said Dr. Sarah Schnitker, a professor of psychology at Baylor University, in an interview on Friday. “We often don’t care about patience, or we even think of it as a weakness instead of as a strength that we need to cultivate.”

Schnitker has devoted a good chunk of her career to the art of patience. In a 2012 study titled “An Examination of Patience and Well Being,” she found that patience isn’t something we either possess or lack from birth, but rather a coping mechanism we can develop to get through difficult chapters in our lives.

Or, in the case of COVID-19, a difficult chapter in world history.

Schnitker divides patience into three specific categories.

The first is interpersonal, also known as people who, for one reason or another, grate on you. (See: guy at gas station.)

The second is life’s daily hassles, those momentary irritations that seem insignificant when viewed in isolation but, over the course of a day, can collectively drive you to distraction. (See: “check engine” light.)

Finally there are life’s true hardships, those ongoing challenges through which you have no choice but to persevere. (See: COVID-19 pandemic.)

The problem with the current state of affairs, Schnitker said, is that many people find themselves dealing with all three simultaneously: families stuck at home together trying to work or attend school online; the spotty internet signals caused by all those simultaneous Zoom sessions; the despair that comes with having done all of this for almost a year with no clear end in sight.

Over time, Schnitker said, “those negative emotions … can really do a number on your physical health and your mental health.”

When it comes to waiting for the vaccine, she added, “This is a chronic problem. This is not going away in the course of a couple of hours, or a day, or even a week. It still might be months before some people get their vaccine.”

Little wonder that “patience” derives from the Latin “patientia,” which means “suffering.”

So, as we wait each day for the latest update from the epidemiologists, how best should we suffer?

Schnitker recommends three strategies, starting with identifying exactly what you’re feeling rather than simply trying to suppress it.

“Are you angry? Are you sad? Are you envious? What is the emotion?” she said. “Identify what it is you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way.”

OK. I’m happy for my relatives to the south that they got stuck, but I’m ticked off that I’m still waiting. All of which admittedly makes me a little – no, a lot – envious. Beyond that, I’m furious that Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed turned out to be Operation Snail’s Pace.

Next comes “cognitive reappraisal,” which Schnitker says is “a fancy way of thinking about it differently.” Meaning that if you look at a challenging situation not just from your perch, but from a loftier perspective, you gain a greater context for your individual struggle.

To wit: I reflexively assumed, upon hearing from Sis, that Virginia is outperforming Maine in getting the vaccine into people’s arms. But then I went online and found that Maine and Virginia are actually tied – according to The New York Times, 7 percent of each state’s citizens have received at least one shot.

The difference? Maine is vaccinating people over 70, while the minimum age in Virginia currently is 65.

Thus, as I think less about my plight and more about my 70-plus neighbors, the less apt I am to take this personally. “It helps that negative emotion dissipate a bit,” Schnitker noted.

Finally, and this is the tough one, Schnitker suggests taking a moment or two each day to ponder “what is my purpose as a human being.”

If you’re the type who believes in contributing to your community, waiting patiently for the vaccine – and taking all necessary precautions in the meantime – becomes your “pursuit of that higher goal,” she said.

Food for thought. I live in a comfortable home. I’m still employed, sufficiently clothed and well fed. My hardship, if that’s what I occasionally call it, pales by comparison to others less fortunate in my own community.

It reminds me of when I’d feel put upon as a kid and my Irish Catholic mother, without missing a beat, would say, “Quit your whining. Offer it up.”

Still, much as I appreciate Dr. Schnitker’s good advice, things aren’t getting any easier. As we approach the anniversary of this pandemic, even with the vaccines now in circulation, I find my reservoir of patience running lower than ever.

“That actually is a very common psychological phenomenon,” Schnitker observed. “As you actually get closer to achieving your goal, frustration increases.”

She likens it to a golfer who might shake his head at an errant drive into the rough, but loses his mind over a putt that stops an inch short of the hole.

“Six months ago, we had no way to actually imagine this being over,” Schnitker said. “Now that the vaccine’s here, what’s more on our minds is that this is going to end. We have an idea of how, but it’s not here yet.”

Speaking of patience, Tuesday is Groundhog Day – that annual test of our mental stamina when we speculate on how much longer winter will last.

I could dwell on that and all its attendant monotony, but thanks to Dr. Schnitker, I won’t. As fate would have it, Feb. 2 is also my sister’s 68th birthday.

So happy (and healthy) birthday, Sis!

Now back to my hole.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: