“If your fever spikes to 100.4° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius), you need to get to the ER right away.” That was the mantra from my doctor that has haunted me since I began treatment for follicular lymphoma two years ago. So, when my temperature rose to 100.3° during my recent bout with pneumonia, I rapidly descended into a full-on panic.
I popped the thermometer in and out of my mouth every 10 minutes. I took a hot shower; my temperature went up. I downed a couple of Acamol (Israeli-branded paracetamol); it went down a notch.Throughout it all, my wife, Jody, was by my side, but she didn’t know any better than me whether we should stay at home or head to Hadassah. Ever since my immune system got pummeled by chemotherapy, we were in uncharted territory. Eventually, my temperature dropped into the 99° and I felt safe enough going to bed. In the morning, my fever was down further and stayed that way, as the antibiotics finally kicked in.On a purely physical level, I felt like I’d dodged a bullet. My cerebral response was more extreme, like an anxious clown being shot from a cannon under the big top of my brain.Now that it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it all necessary? Could there be another way to approach such uncertainty the next time it arises?SOMETIMES, IT’S the most overused expressions that turn out to be the best way to internalize a new behavior. “Patience is a virtue” is one of those.Patience is something I have traditionally had little of. I want things to be solved fast. A fix for that computer glitch now. A solution for my cataract complications immediately.But here’s the thing about patience: unless it’s an emergency – like a heart attack or a rapidly growing tumor where you can’t afford to take risks – usually, if you give something a little space, there’s a good chance it will go away without further intervention.Three years ago, when I first started getting the terrible stomach pains that ultimately led to my cancer diagnosis (but that turned out not to be connected to it), I had zero patience. On one particularly bad night, I begged Jody to take me to the emergency room.The doctors hooked me to an IV and the pain abated. But there was nothing wrong that the doctors could see. So, was it the drugs or just the benefit of time?A few months later, when the same pain arose again, I chose a different path. I was in agony for hours. But I didn’t go to the hospital, and the distress eventually passed.The first time the expression “patience is a virtue” appeared in English was in a poem called “Piers Plowman” written by William Langland around the year 1360, although its origins date back even further – to Cato the Elder, who included it in his popular Latin textbook of wisdom.AS WITH most things we know are good for us, getting there is easier said than done. How does an impatient person cultivate more space – especially when panic can handily overwhelm any attempt at maintaining mindfulness?Perhaps the first step is to understand that sheer will is not enough.“You want to train, not try, for patience,” Dr. Sarah Schnitker, an associate professor at Baylor University who researches patience, told The New York Times. “It’s important to do it habitually.”One way is to practice patience during less intense situations, where the stakes are not as high. For example, if your impatience is triggered by standing in line at the grocery store, see if you can interrupt the stress cycle. Designate a specific game on your phone or a particular podcast that you call up in those circumstances.“If you do it on a daily basis,” Schnitker says, patience “can grow and develop just like a muscle.”Cognitive reappraisal can also be helpful.“Feeling impatient is not just an automatic emotional response,” writes Kira Newman for the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center website. “It involves conscious thoughts and beliefs, too.”Schnitker gives an example of how to cognitively reframe an experience. If you’re struggling to be patient with your child, ask yourself about the “big picture: Why is being a parent an important role to you? What does that mean in your life?” Similarly, if you’re aggravated by a co-worker, think about the times you’ve been the one who has frustrated others.My son, Amir, suggested a different approach.“You’re already too much in your head. You need a more spiritual practice,” he said.Spiritual doesn’t signify only religious observance. Yoga, meditation or even exercise can also work.What about a “spiritual partner”? I proposed, a like-minded coach, someone with whom you’re on the same page, who can hold you accountable to practicing patience.Someone like Jody.After the fever incident, Jody and I made a deal.“When you see me start to panic, I want you to tell me to take 20 or to take 60 minutes and we’ll revisit then,” I submitted solemnly. “I’ll go and do something – I’m not sure what. Maybe I’ll write, maybe I’ll watch TV or walk the dog. The point is, through this agreement, I’m giving you permission to say that to me and I’m promising I’ll do my best to listen and follow through.”Will it work? I guess we’ll have to practice patience and wait to find out.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com