It's the most wonderful time of the year, right?
Not if you have to be out in the world -- standing in line at the post office, waiting your turn at the ATM, fighting the holiday traffic and circling the mall parking lot to find a space in the same ZIP code as your destination. It's enough to make you wish all those other people would just get out of the way. Please.
But hold on. What you need this season is patience, says Irene McMullin.
McMullin, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Arkansas, recently presented a paper about patience at an academic conference. Now ordinarily this isn't the sort of thing we report on in your daily newspaper. But McMullin's ideas about patience -- which she calls a "neglected virtue" -- seem relevant to everyone's lives, especially in this season of too many people doing too many things.
So we called her. Despite having finals to grade, McMullin patiently answered our questions. Here's what we learned about building patience in this trying season.
Patience is a skill
Many people think of patience as an innate character trait, assuming you're either born patient or you're not.
"They sort of forfeit responsibility by characterizing it that way," McMullin said. "I think that's wrong."
Instead, she says, patience is a skill. It's something we can practice, something we all can improve. And that means we are all responsible for being patient with one another -- whether it's easy for us or not.
Being impatient does not make you important
We live in a world where it's cool to be sleep-deprived, fashionable to be busy and on the go. And "busy" often translates to "too busy for you." Which means impatience is OK, even rewarded, and the old, the slow, the not-so-smart and the clumsy -- they're the ones who need to change.
After all, it's almost Christmas. You've got stuff to do. That means you don't have time to smile at the clerk who wants to chat instead of counting out change. You don't have time to wait for the guy at the post office who takes 10 minutes to mail a dozen Christmas cards. They should get out of your way or face your wrath, right?
"When [impatience] is framed that way, it's not a vice," McMullin said. "It's just kind of like, 'Well, I'm busy and interesting and complicated, so it doesn't matter that much that my behavior toward you is rude and hurtful.'"
But stop. Please. No way are you more important than those people. Instead of justifying your impatience, practice being patient. Here are some techniques.
Put yourself in the other person's shoes
Here's what happens when we are in a hurry, McMullin says: People become irritating objects that are moving too slowly, taking too long, getting in the way and slowing your progress.
And when you stop seeing people as people, then it's easy to demonstrate your impatience. "Seeing people that way sort of subtly allows for abuse," McMullin said.
So instead of sighing loudly or making a snarky remark, try to imagine what that person is going through.
Maybe that guy ahead of you is recovering from a stroke and can't write out a check as fast as he used to.
It's possible that the cashier just got hired a week ago, hasn't been trained and is freaking out.
"Maybe they really are just incompetent," McMullin said. But coming up with some story -- and recognizing that other people have struggles, too -- "sort of forces you to step back from the situation and think of them as a person and not just a thing in your way."
It also gives you something to do while you're waiting. And besides that, it takes your mind off yourself for a minute, which is never a bad thing.
"What you're doing," McMullin said, "is acknowledging the other person as someone who has an equal right to share the world with you."
Realize that everyone is in the same boat
You're sitting in traffic. You've been sitting in traffic for half an hour. And you are starting to really despise the people around you. Why can't they drive properly? And why do they insist on letting everyone into your lane?
Take a deep breath. Think about everyone else on the highway. They all have places to get to -- work, home, the airport, the mall before it closes. Instead of enemies, try to think of them as partners in this journey, teammates you need to work with in order to solve this traffic puzzle.
Or let's say you're in line at the mall and the cash register just ran out of receipt tape. Someone has to page the manager. Everyone must wait.
You hate everybody there, right? But stop. Sometimes, McMullin said, if you crack a little joke (not a mean one about inept cashiers) or strike up a conversation with a stranger in line, everyone relaxes. The tension shatters. All of a sudden, the people around you seem human again.
"All of a sudden, there's quite a shift," McMullin said. "You're no longer just focused on how everybody is thwarting you, but you see them as sort of partners in this struggle that's nobody's fault."
If you can't be patient, be tolerant
Let's say you're in line at the ATM. The person ahead of you is taking forever. You have 10 minutes to get cash and pick up your mother-in-law for last-minute shopping.
If you were feeling patient, you might get involved. Is there trouble with the machine? Is the person getting frustrated? Can you help? If you were feeling patient, you might say, "Take your time" -- and mean it. You would care whether this person at the ATM gets her money.
If you just can't give that much of yourself right now -- at least try to be tolerant. Try to zone out, look away, give other people their space and try not to make things worse.
If you must, step away
Maybe you love crowds and you don't mind lines, but spending holiday time with the family is what shortens your fuse. After all, strangers can't push your buttons quite the way relatives can. How do you hold onto your patience?
It goes back to realizing that others are humans, not obstacles, McMullin said.
If that doesn't work -- say your sister's driving you crazy and your mother's nagging you -- "sometimes the best thing you can do is just go for a walk," McMullin said.
"Even the most virtuous individual ... only has so many emotional reserves," McMullin said. "So you can't be unrealistic. You have to give yourself a break to replenish."