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Soulful Sundays: Patience

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” ~Aristotle

We have all heard of the Seven Deadly Sins (in order: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth), a list of the fundamental mortal vices according to Roman Catholic theology. What you may be less familiar with are the Seven Remedial (or Heavenly) Virtues, enumerated by the famous theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The Seven Virtues (in order: humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence) are the counter forces to the Seven Sins. Making sense of each of these combinations takes a little mental gymnastics, but the one that I had the hardest time understanding was the wrath-patience pairing.

Wrath, or anger, is one of the most misunderstood emotions in the human psychic pallet. Often times triggered by other emotions (like fear, resentment, or jealousy), anger becomes a vice when it is the default pattern—when we turn to it reflexively. With this in mind, patience as the counter virtue makes sense. However, I still think that it misses the mark because waiting patiently often times leads to more anger and resentment over time. Perhaps there is a different virtue at the core of patience? Let's look at what Chinese medicine has to say.

Anger is the emotion of the Liver System (the Wood element) and is often associated with the constraint of Liver qi, or in other words, the build up of stress. As the Liver becomes inundated with stress, it is less capable of performing its necessary tasks, which shows up as friction. This friction leads to heat. The result of this blockage is wrath, not just emotionally, but also against the body. Hypertension, acid reflux, dysmenorrhea, tinnitus, and even nose bleeds can all come from stagnation in the Liver. According the the clock of meridian flow in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Liver is most active at night between 1 A.M. and 3 A.M. Not surprisingly, this is most often when people report nighttime insomnia.

Interestingly, the chief cause of Liver stagnation is actually Liver deficiency—the Liver does not have adequate energy to maintain its function. A metaphor that I use often goes like this: If you get a bunch of bills (stress) in the mail, and have the money (energy/qi) to pay them all, then life is great, but if your lack the money then things get troublesome pretty quick. Keeping the Liver happy has everything to do with reducing stress and facilitating movement. And this is where I think patience is an incomplete virtue. Patience is too passive. Countering anger with patience is like trying to make more money by simply waiting. The Liver needs something more active. It needs benevolence.

Benevolence is the virtue of the Liver according the the Chinese Five Element tradition. Benevolence, or kindness, is the process of helping others and practicing compassion. But the extension of kindness is incomplete if it does not also include the giver. By seeking a balance between self-care and compassionate regard, we can add energy and force back to the Liver. On occasion we may act in a way that is not subjectively "nice," but is objectively the kindest thing to do, such as setting firm boundaries or saying "No thanks." The Liver flows freely when it can focus its attention on completing its tasks with a clear view of the territory.

Each of us has a unique relationship with anger. Some of what we feel may be completely justified, but its expression may be constrained by the rules and laws that govern civil conduct. The rest of our anger is most likely caused by a lack of understanding of our own internal limitations. One of the quickest antidotes to anger towards someone else is to imagine them as children who have transgressed. It does us no good to shout back at them. This also applies to anger we direct at ourselves.

The potential for malevolence exists in us all, but those who choose to harm others do so because they were harmed themselves. The cycle begins and ends with the decisions that we make right now. Be patience. Be kind. Practice benevolence.

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