A number of people have said to me “You are so patient,” when referring to my relationship with my Down syndrome son. I understand why they say it, I know it is meant as a compliment, and I appreciate them offering it, but I don’t know that it lands on me the way they want it to. It must look like patience when they see me exhibit a static demeanor in a chaotic situation, but it’s not patience – it’s self-preservation.

Down Syndrome Days might be different but still sweet

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Years ago when everyone else was in the chapel at a church meeting, I was in a hallway quietly examining a bulletin board with my 7-year old son on the floor at my feet. A woman passed by and said: “You can’t let him kick you like that.” I just wanted to laugh – “Really? You try to stop him,” I thought, “I have to stay within 2 feet of him or he’ll get away and this is what happens when you’re within range.” She wasn’t commending me for remaining calm as others have in similar situations but this is just one example of when having a composed appearance on the outside wasn’t because on the inside I was feeling things were going just great. If patience is some virtuous ability to have generous or lighthearted feelings in the heat of unpleasant events, thanks anyway to those who have ascribed this noble trait to me, but what you are witnessing is not patience. Don’t be deceived – my outward calm is realized for one purely selfish reason: I just want to keep the problem from escalating. I don’t have some sunny way of viewing what’s happening – what I have is an understanding of cause and effect.

graduation dayMy son could be screaming and trying to pull away from my grasp, or he could be actually running away just out of my reach. He might have hidden something important or tell me “You ruin it!” or “You bad!” or the dreaded “You ugly!” He could be refusing to move out of the middle of the street or cooperate for an important photo , or removing his shoes or clothes for the millionth time. If you see me in these situations and I don’t react explosively – you tell me – if I were to respond with a shout or a stomp of the foot, or a finger pointing tirade . . . would we be better off? I don’t think so. That’s why I don’t do those things. Not through any God-given talent that my complimentors tell me they don’t have. Not because I’m not feeling like doing a little stomping and shouting. I just know that that would only slow down the process of pulling things back together.

I decided to look up the definition of “patience” just now while I was writing. The dictionary says only “calm endurance”. It says nothing whatever about actually feeling as composed as you appear to be. Apparently “patience” doesn’t mean that you are comfortable with the situation, only that you hold back from histrionics while moving through it . . . well, I do that!

I always thought that if patience is a virtue it couldn’t be in the same place as agitation. Perhaps I have misunderstood this word. Perhaps I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when people say that nice thing to encourage me in the middle of some crazy situation. I shouldn’t feel that they are complimenting me on something I am not living up to. I don’t have to be enjoying the current event to accept their kind words. These people are just acknowledging that they see I am controlling what I can in a given situation: me. It turns out I don’t have to have soft music running through my mind or be worthy of a halo around my head to accept these compliments. Wow, this is going to change things . . . but I do still reject that I am doing anything they couldn’t do. No matter how much they protest, unless they wanted to get into some battles royale, I believe they would do the same things. If I seem to them to succeed at something they think they might not, it’s probably just because my boy has given me the opportunity for more years of practice.

I learned something today with this fresh definition: patience and self-preservation are not the opposites I thought they were. They actually can be the same thing.

About Jane Thurston

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