Patience as forbearance can be such a boon and ballast for us during really turbulent, rocky, difficult times like the times that we’re living in with the global pandemic, vaccines and variants, political divisiveness, the climate crisis, and the gender and racial awakening and reckoning that we’re experiencing.
You can think of forbearance—an antiquated word we don’t hear often—as protection against your own reactivity or in the face of another person’s reactivity. You can also think of it as self-restraint in the face of injury and insult.
The Buddha says, “If others abuse, revile, scold, and harass you, on that account, you should not entertain any annoyance, bitterness, or dejection of heart.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear that I think, “That’s a tall order.” When we’re the object of another person’s seeming disrespect, disdain, hostility, or impatience, we react in all kinds of ways. We can meet aggression with aggression. We can collapse or freeze. Sometimes we want to pull away and run.
None of these reactions, especially running, are helpful, because there are instances in which it is appropriate to turn toward harm and injury and set a very clear, firm boundary that’s born of love and wisdom. But patience doesn’t mean that we allow people to walk all over us. Practicing patience as forbearance helps us broaden the repertoire of our responses in really challenging, difficult situations.
In a passage called “Suffering and Faith,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I’ve been imprisoned in Alabama and Georgia jails 12 times. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of death threats.
We can read this and think that’s a relic of another time. But there are freedom fighters today—like Bryan Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative, who are in the heartwork of exonerating people who have been wrongly imprisoned for crimes that they did not commit—who have received death threats because of their work. This is not something from the past. There are freedom fighters still experiencing these threats today, and they’re calling on patience as forbearance.
I’ve been the victim of a near-fatal stabbing. So in a real sense, I have been battered by the storms of persecution. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life.
But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. [Determination is one of the paramis.] I have learned now that the master’s burden is alight precisely when we take his yoke upon us. [Remember, King is a minister, a man of God.]
My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force.
I’ve decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering, I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transfigure myself and heal the people and the tragic situation, which now obtains.
The East Point Peace Academy, which trains people and offers workshops in Kingian-Gandhian nonviolence and nonviolent action, exposed me to a campaign from the civil rights era that is an example of this creative response to personal injury and insult.
It’s April of 1963, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference starts a campaign to challenge the segregation laws of Birmingham, Alabama. They want all lunch counters integrated, Blacks to be hired in the department stores downtown, schools integrated that fall.
To give some context to that last demand, nine years earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. And then a year later, in 1955, in Brown v. Board of Education II, or Brown II, the Supreme Court said, “OK, y’all need to actually desegregate schools with all deliberate speed.” These southern states were really dragging their feet, so this campaign said they needed to integrate schools this fall.
This campaign, however, was not gaining communal support or getting a massive number of Blacks coming out to protest. This was really understandable. The violence unleashed against Black activists (or just average citizens who were participating in these protests) was often lethal, discouraging people from coming out to protest. As an adult, if you participated in these protests, you risked losing your job. And there was a fragile false peace—what King called a “negative peace”—that was struck between the Black middle class of Birmingham, Alabama and the white power structure.
One of the ministers said, “Alright, we’re not getting the mass number of adults coming out to protest. Let’s train the children.” There was a lot of argument and debate about this, asking, “Is it ethical to train children?” The brilliant argument that won the day, made by this one minister, was, if these young children are empowered with the choice to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then shouldn’t they be empowered to actually protest and challenge racism? (Remember, this is a Christian community.)
The point that he was making is that racism has a deleterious effect on the hearts and minds of people, and it starts at a young age. He was saying that these young people should be empowered with the choice to actually challenge the policies, practices, mores, and ideology that was and would continue to have an adverse impact on the development of their own hearts and minds.
So it’s May 2, 1963, and the aim of this campaign was to overwhelm the jails—to get so many people coming out to protest, so many children coming to protest, that Birmingham wouldn’t be able to jail everyone.
The parents were really worried for their children. They were saying, “You’ve better not go down to that church. Please don’t go to that church.” But the children came in droves to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Six hundred children were jailed on that first day of May 2. It’s estimated that ten thousand children total were jailed during this protest. It took the Birmingham authorities completely by surprise.
I don’t want to romanticize this protest. There are children who were jailed. They didn’t know what was going to happen to them, so they had a lot of fear running through their system. They defied their parents to do this, and this put a strain on the parent-child bond.
Perhaps you’ve seen the iconic photos and footage of these children facing fire hoses, pounds of water tearing at their clothing and flesh, or of these very courageous young people facing down dogs that were unleashed on them, and grown men empowered by the state to use lethal force on these young people.
They endured these hardships, and they did it with the spirit of knowing that what they were doing was right. They did it with the hope that their country and their fellow humans would see the rightness and nobility of what they were standing for, and the intention that was animating them. They hoped that their country would respond with generosity and support and would also see the rightness of what they were doing. This rightness filled them with a nobility.
Maybe you’ve also seen footage and recordings of these young people singing and dancing to shore each other up, keep their spirits up, and remind themselves of their intention.
When we call on forbearance in the face of insult and injury without reacting, it frees up our energy so that we can respond creatively.
They desegregated downtown Birmingham, Alabama. They did it. And it came at a cost. I know a lot of older Black people from this era who are terrified. I’ve seen Black people who were raised during this era who are just terrified of dogs, gripped by fear. We can romanticize that kind of courage, forgetting that it comes at a cost. It comes at a high cost that can live on in the people who endured these hardships in the name of justice.
This nonviolent campaign was rooted in six principles, the third of which is a way of practicing patience as forbearance. It says, “The nonviolent approach helps one analyze the fundamental conditions, policies, and practices of the conflict rather than reacting to one’s opponents or their personalities.”
When we call on forbearance in the face of insult and injury without reacting, it frees up our energy so that we can respond creatively. In this particular campaign, that energy was used to deconstruct the conditions that created the injustice and the harm. They used that energy to escalate the situation and dramatize the injustice and harm done so that the status quo was no longer tenable for those in the dominant culture who were superficially benefiting from the injustice. They escalated and dramatized the situation with the intention to actually de-escalate so that they could enter into negotiation and start the process of restoring equity, respect, and mutual right relationship and planting the seeds of a beloved community.
This was the genius of the Black-led freedom struggle here in the United States, and this is what’s possible. This is the fruit. This is what’s possible when we summon forbearance in the face of injury, insult, and harm. All that energy that would have been bound up in reactivities is actually freed up so that we can respond creatively from our deepest values.
I’m not saying that you need to go out and protest and open yourselves to the lethal violence that these freedom fighters actually opened themselves up to. There were very special conditions that allowed them to rise to the challenges of their times. They trained in forbearance daily. Their direct action was rooted in the philosophy of nonviolence and nonviolent action. This philosophy was strengthened by a deep Christian ethic of love, to which they wholeheartedly gave themselves over because they wholeheartedly believed in it. And they had sangha. They were there for each other.
So they had very special circumstances supporting them. That said, the civil rights movement and these teachings on patience are a part of our inheritance. So what does that mean for us as practitioners?
The children of Birmingham, Alabama trained in patience as forbearance. Diane Nash and John Lewis trained in patience as forbearance. The Buddha trained in patience as forbearance. And we, too, can train in patience as forbearance.
Adapted from Dawn Scott’s Dharma Talk, “The Steadying Power of Patience”