“Patience,” wrote an early master of social media, is “a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” How absolutely true, I thought. Despair. But minor. Disguised—but poorly, in my own case—as a virtue.
This timely quip dates back more than a century, to when the dashing Civil War veteran and writer Ambrose Bierce published his “Devil’s Dictionary,” a collection of satiric definitions he had penned, over several decades, for newspapers and magazines. I was rummaging on Google for a bit of standard etymology for the word “patience” (“from the Latin patientia, the quality of suffering or enduring”) when Bierce’s one-liner popped up.
So very descriptive of where many of us are right now, isn’t it?
In the past year, there has been unbelievable suffering. And endurance. But in November, we learned two huge things about 2021: 1) We would soon have a new president (although we didn’t yet know how many people were in deep denial about that) and 2) We would all be vaccinated. Eventually. But definitely in 2021.
Ever since, the worldwide call to action has been for patience.
Sadly, I do not have a great track record when it comes to patience.
But surely that won’t be a problem, I thought, back in December. Because I’m turning 64 in January! And then when the initial vaccination phases were broadly outlined, and the number “65” was in bold type everywhere, I thought: That’s okay. I can be patient. Because after they vaccinate all the 65-year-olds, they’ll give me a call, right? My big, efficient HMO will just… text me, right? When it’s my turn. When they get to the 64-year-olds. I can wait my turn. I know I can!
But then things got more and more specific. And, as I finally acknowledged to myself on March 5, in the pages of my journal, my husband and I were “unlikely to get vaccinated til May. At the earliest. Because I am lucky enough to be so healthy at 64, which is mainly due to my lifetime of white privilege and good fortune, I. Must. Wait. My. Turn. Which will come after people with comorbidities, people in prison, veterans, cops, grocery workers, bus drivers, and teachers of course.”
“But,” said a different, panicky part of my brain, “I’m not used to waiting my turn! Don’t want to! Don’t like it! Can’t I fix it, game it, somehow?” But I knew I couldn’t, and wouldn’t.
Back in the spring, or was it summer? –I had imagined that raising my hand high enough, being eager and willing, would somehow get me there faster. Like in first grade: call on me, Teacher, I’m ready! I’ll test your vaccine! I put my name on a list of people willing to take part in vaccine trials, but I never got a call.
So I found myself having an extended, multi-month, learning moment. It was humbling and slightly painful. It was a minor form of despair that did not deserve to look anything like virtue.
And then, in mid-March, I saw something on our neighborhood email about leftover doses being available after 4pm at the City of Seattle’s Rainier Beach vaccination site. The leftovers would be given in strict age order, oldest to youngest. The city’s goal was to make sure not a single dose went to waste. This I could do, I thought. This would turn my lack of patience into a way to help the city not to waste a single shot!
On Monday, March 22, I decided to give it a go. The Seattle Times happened to show up that same afternoon, so you can read their report and see some photos. What made my heart thump, at 4:28 pm when Fire Department Capt. Kyle White came out to talk to the crowd, was that there were only six doses left.
Captain White asked if there were any people 65 or older: just one, so he was first in line, and we all clapped for him. Then the captain asked for 64-year-olds. Several of us raised our hands. Three were born in 1956, so off they went. He then asked for people born in January 1957. Three of us stepped forward and showed our driver’s licenses. January 18 (that was me), January 24 and January 26. He could only take two. If I’d been born nine days later, I would’ve been the unlucky one.
But no. I was in! I felt like I’d just won the grand prize on a gameshow. All I had to do to claim it was to answer a few questions and get my shoulder scrubbed and jabbed.
And afterwards, I can’t even describe how relieved I felt. I knew I was supposed to “rest” for fifteen minutes, but I wanted to dance or sprint or yell for joy. I have an actual schedule now, I kept saying to myself. Six weeks. Yes, I knew that meant six more weeks of patience, while I waited for my second shot and then waited two more weeks after that, before I could call myself fully vaccinated. And yes, I knew that I must continue to mask up and stay safe. But I also knew that, on May 5, both I and my husband (who is 15 months younger than me, so—lucky for him—when he showed up two days later, Capt. White had 19 extra shots) would be as protected as Moderna could make us.
This is the way this year has gone, isn’t it? By which I mean not the whole Year of the Pandemic, but 2021, young though it still is. Just when dreary March is threatening to go full-on bleak, up pops a chance at a vaccine. On the same day my husband got his jab, our stimulus payments landed in our bank account. In the same week, our adult children landed surplus shots of their own in two different cities.
“Apocalyptic means unveiling,” Franciscan priest Richard Rohr wrote. “When things are unveiled, we stop taking things for granted.”
This apocalyptic time has already ripped the veil off so many illusions we held dear, and it will continue to unveil many more. About entitlement and endurance. About privilege and patience. About minor despair, disguised as virtue.
On March 16, eight people were killed in a mass shooting in Atlanta. On March 22, three hours before I got my first vaccine, ten people were killed in Boulder. On March 25, Georgia state troopers arrested state Rep. Park Cannon for knocking on Governor Brian Kemp’s door while Kemp signed a bill restricting voting rights. President Biden called the bill an “atrocity” and “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.”
What would happen if we dropped the disguise and owned up to the minor despair? Just now and then, when patience might not be the best plan. It’s hard to be patient, for months, when you’re waiting for a vaccine during a coronavirus pandemic. Or to be patient, for years, when you’re waiting for meaningful gun safety legislation during America’s never-ending violence pandemic. Or to be patient, for decades, when you’re waiting for democracy to be protected instead of, once again, shredded.
In the version of The Devil’s Dictionary I found online, there is no definition of democracy, though Bierce is rumored to have called it “a government of the people, by the politician, for the businessman.” But I did find this definition of liberty: “one of Imagination’s most precious possessions.”
I know Bierce meant it cynically, but right now–one week out from my first Moderna shot–it works for me.