The Power of Patience
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
I have a very excellent friend, who married some ten years ago, and now has her own cares and troubles in a domestic establishment consisting of her husband and herself, five children, and two servants. Like a large majority of those similarly situated, Mrs. Martinet finds her natural stock of patience altogether inadequate to the demand therefore; and that there is an extensive demand will be at once inferred when I mention that four of her five children are boys.
I do not think Mrs. Martinet's family government by any means perfect, though she has certainly very much improved it, and gets on with far more comfort to herself and all around her, than she did. For the improvement at which I have hinted, I take some credit to myself, though I am by no means certain, that, were I situated as my friend is — I would govern my family as well as she governs hers.
I am aware that a maiden lady, like myself, young or old, it matters not to tell the reader which, can look down from the quiet regions where she lives — and see how easy it would be for the wife and mother to reduce all to order in her turbulent household. But I am at the same time conscious of the difficulties that beset the wife and mother in the incessant, exhausting, and health-destroying nature of her duties, and how her mind, from these causes, must naturally lose its clear-seeing qualities when most they are needed, and its calm and even temper, when its exercise is of most consequence.
Too little allowance, I am satisfied, is made for the mother, who, with a shattered nervous system, and suffering too, often, from physical prostration — is ever in the midst of her little family of restless spirits, and compelled to administer to their thousand needs, to guide, guard, protect, govern, and restrain their evil passions, when of all things, repose and quiet of body and mind, for even a brief season — would be the greatest blessing she could ask.
I have seen a wife and mother, thus situated, betrayed into a hasty expression, or lose her self-command so far as to speak with fretful impatience to a child, who rather needed to be soothed by a calmly spoken word; and I have seen her even-minded husband, who knew not what it was to feel a pain, or to suffer from nervous prostration, reprove that wife with a look that called the tears to her eyes. She was wrong — but he was wrong in a greater degree. The over-tried wife needed her husband's sustaining patience, and gently spoken counsel — not his cold reproof.
Husbands, as far as my observation gives me the ability to judge, have far less consideration for, and patience with their wives — than they are entitled to receive. If any should know best the wife's trials, sufferings, and incessant exhausting duties — it is the husband, and he, of all others, should be the last to censure — if, from very prostration of body and mind, she is sometimes betrayed into hasty words — that generally do more harm among children and servants than total silence in regard to what is wrong. But this is a digression.
One day, I called to see Mrs. Martinet, and found her in a very disturbed state of mind.
"I am almost worried to death, Kate!" she said, soon after I came in.
"You look unhappy," I returned. "What has happened?"
"What is always happening," she replied. "Scarcely a day passes over my head, that my patience is not tried to the utmost. I must let everybody in the house do just as he or she likes, or else there is a disturbance. I am not allowed to speak out my own mind, without someone's being offended."
"It is a great trial, as well as responsibility — to have the charge of a family," I remarked.
"Indeed, and you may well say that. No one knows what it is, but she who has the trial. The greatest trouble is with the servants. As a class, they are, with few exceptions, dirty, careless, and impudent. I sometimes think it gives them pleasure to interfere with your household arrangements and throw all into disorder. This seems especially to be the spirit of my present cook. My husband is particular about having his meals at the hour, and is never pleased when irregularities occur, although he does not often say anything; this I told Hannah, when she first came, and have scolded her about being behindhand a dozen times since; and yet we do not have a meal at the hour oftener than two or three times a week.
"This morning, my husband asked me if I wouldn't be particular in seeing that dinner was on the table exactly at two o'clock. As soon as he was gone, I went down into the kitchen and said, 'Do, for mercy's sake, Hannah, have dinner ready at the hour today. Mr. Martinet particularly desires it.' Hannah made no answer. It is one of her disagreeable habits, when you speak to her. 'Did you hear me?' I asked, quite out of patience with her. The creature looked up at me with an impudent face and said, pertly, 'I'm not deaf.' 'Then, why didn't you answer me when I spoke? It's a very ugly habit that you have, of not replying when anyone addresses you. How is it to be known that you hear what is said?' The spirit in which Hannah met my request to have dinner ready in time, satisfied me that she would so manage as to throw it off beyond the regular hour. I left the kitchen feeling, as you may well suppose, exceedingly worried."
Just then the door of the room in which we were sitting was thrown open with a bang, and in bounded Harry, Mrs. Martinet's eldest boy — a wild young scamp of a fellow — and whooping out some complaint against his sister. His mother, startled and annoyed by the rude interruption, ordered him to leave the room instantly. But Harry stood his ground without moving an eyelash.
"Do you hear?" And Mrs. Martinet stamped with her foot, to give stronger emphasis to her words.
"Lizzy snatched my top-cord out of my hands, and won't give it to me!"
"Go out of this room!"
"Shan't Lizzy give me my top-cord?"
"Go out, I tell you!"
"I want my top-cord."
My poor friend's face was red, and her voice trembling with passion. With each renewed order for the child to leave the room, she stamped with her foot upon the floor. Harry, instead of going out as he was directed to do, kept advancing nearer and nearer, as he repeated his complaint, until he came close up to where we were sitting.
"Didn't I tell you to go out!" exclaimed his mother, losing all patience.
As she spoke, she arose hastily, and seizing him by the arm, dragged, rather than led him from the room.
"I never saw such a child!" she said, returning after closing the door upon Harry. "Nothing does but force. You might talk to him all day without moving him an inch, when he gets in one of these moods."
Bang went the door open, and, "I want my top-cord!" followed in louder and more passionate tones than before.
"Isn't it beyond all endurance!" cried my friend, springing up and rushing across the room.
The passionate child, who had been spoiled by injudicious management, got a sound whipping and was shut up in a room by himself. After performing this rather unpleasant task, Mrs. Martinet returned to the parlor, flushed, excited, and trembling in every nerve.
"I expect that boy will be the death of me yet!" she said, as she sank, panting, into a chair. "It is surprising how stubborn and self-willed he grows. I don't know how to account for it. He never has his own way — I never yield an inch to him when he gets in these terrible humours. Oh, dear! I feel sometimes like giving up in despair."
I did not make a reply, for I could not say anything that would not have been a reproof of her impatient temper. After my friend had grown calmer, she renewed her narrative about the dinner.
"As I was saying, when that boy interrupted us, I left the kitchen very much worried, and felt worried all the morning. Several times I went down to see how things were coming on, but it was plain that Hannah did not mean to have dinner at the hour. When it was time to put the meat on to roast, the fire was all down in the range. Half an hour was lost in renewing it. As I expected, when my husband came home for his dinner, at the appointed time, the table was not even set.
"'Dear me!' he said, 'isn't dinner ready? I told you that I wished it at the hour, particularly. I have a business engagement at half-past two, which must be met. It is too bad! I am out of all patience with these irregularities. I can't wait, of course.'
"And saying this, my husband turned upon his heel and left the house. As you may suppose, I did not feel very comfortable, nor in a very good humor with Hannah. When she made her appearance to set the table, which was not for a quarter of an hour, I gave her about as good a tongue lashing, I reckon, as she ever had in her life. Of course, I was paid back in impudence which I could not stand, and therefore gave her notice to leave. If ever a woman was tried beyond endurance, I am. My very life is becoming a burden to me. The worst part of it is, there is no prospect of a change for the better. Things, instead of growing better, grow worse."
"It is not so bad as that, I hope," I could not help remarking. "Have you never thought of a remedy for the evils of which you complain?"
"A remedy, Kate! What remedy is there?"
Mrs. Martinet looked at me curiously.
"If not a remedy — there is, I am sure, a palliative," I returned, feeling doubtful of the effect of what I had it in my mind to express.
"What is the remedy or palliative of which you speak. Name it, for goodness' sake! Like a drowning man, I will clutch it, if it is but a straw."
"The remedy is patience." My voice slightly faltered as I spoke.
Instantly the color deepened on the face of Mrs. Martinet. But our close intimacy, and her knowledge of the fact that I was really a friend, prevented her from being offended.
"Patience!" she said, after she had a little recovered herself. "Patience is no remedy. To endure is not to cure."
"In that, perhaps, you are mistaken," I returned. "The effect of patience, is to cure domestic evils. A calm exterior and a gentle, yet firm voice — will in nine cases in ten, effect more than the most passionate outbreak of indignant feelings. I have seen it tried over and over again, and I am sure of the effect."
"I would like to have seen the effect of a gentle voice upon my Harry, just now."
"Forgive me for saying," I answered to this, "that in my opinion, if you had met his passionate outbreak at the wrong he had suffered in losing his top-cord, in a different manner from what you did — that the effect would have been of a like different character."
My friend's face colored more deeply, and her lips trembled. But she had good sense, and this kept her from being offended at what I said. I went on —
"There is no virtue more necessary in the management of a household, than patience. It accomplishes almost everything. Yet it is a hard virtue to practice, and I am by no means sure that, if I were in your place, I would practice it any better than you do. But it is of such vital importance to the order, comfort, and well-being of a family — to be able patiently and calmly to meet every disturbing and disorderly circumstance, that it is worth a struggle to attain the state of mind requisite to do so. To meet passion with passion — does no good, but only harm. The mind, when disturbed from any cause, is disturbed more deeply when it meets an opposing mind in a similar state. This is as true of children as of grown people, and perhaps more so, for their reason is not matured, and therefore there is nothing to balance their minds. It is also more true of those who have not learned, from reason, to control themselves, as is the case with too large a portion of our servants; who need to be treated with almost as much forbearance and consideration as children."
These remarks produced a visible effect upon Mrs. Martinet. She became silent and reflective, and continued so, to a great extent, during the half-hour that I remained.
Nearly two weeks elapsed before I called upon my friend again. I found her, happily, in a calmer state of mind than upon my previous visit. We were in the midst of a pleasant conversation, half an hour after I had come in, when one of the children, a boy between seven and eight years old, came into the room and made some complaint against his brother. The little fellow was excited, and broke in upon our quiet chitchat with a rude jar that I felt quite sensibly. I expected, of course, to hear him ordered from the room instantly. That had been my friend's usual proceeding when these interruptions occurred; at least it had been so when I happened to be a visitor. But instead of this, she said in a low, mild, soothing voice,
"Well, never mind, Willy. You stay in the parlor with us, where Harry can't trouble you."
This was just the proposition, above all others, to please the child. His face brightened, and he came and nestled up closely to his mother, who was sitting on a corner of the sofa. Drawing an arm around him, she went on with the remarks she happened to be making when the interruption of his entrance occurred. No very long time elapsed, before the parlor door flew open, and Harry entered, asking, as he did so, in a loud voice, for Willy.
"Willy is here. What do you want with him?" said the mother, in a quiet, but firm tone.
"I want him to come and play."
"You were not kind to Willy, and he doesn't wish to play with you."
"Come, Willy, and play, and I will be kind," said Harry.
"Will you let me be the master sometimes?" asked the little fellow, raising himself up from where he remained seated beside his mother.
"Yes, you shall be master, sometimes."
"Then I'll play," and Willy sprang from the sofa and bounded from the room, as happy as he could be.
The mother smiled, and looking into my face, as soon as we were alone, said —
"You see, Kate, that I am trying your remedy — patience."
"With most happy results, I am glad to see."
"With better results than I could have believed, certainly. Gentleness, consideration, and firmness — I find do a great deal, and their exercise leaves my own mind in a good state. There is a power in patience that I did not believe it possessed. I can do more by a mildly spoken word, than by the most emphatic command uttered in a passion. This is the experience of a few weeks. But, alas! Kate, to be able to exercise patience — how hard a thing that is! It requires constant watchfulness and a constant effort. Every hour I find myself betrayed into the utterance of some hasty word, and feel its powerlessness compared to those that are most gently spoken."
"Do you get on with your servants any better than you did?"
"Oh, yes! Far better."
"I suppose you sent Hannah away some time ago?"
"No. I have her yet."
"Yes, and she does very well."
"Does she get your meals ready in time?"
"She is punctual to the minute."
"Really she must have changed for the better! And is this, too, the result of patience and forbearance on your part?"
"I suppose so. What you said in regard to having patience, at your last visit, struck me forcibly, and caused me to feel humbled and self-condemned. The more I thought of it, the more satisfied was I, that you were right. But it was one thing to see the benefit of patience, and another thing to exercise it. To be patient amid the turbulence, ill-tempers, and disobedience of children, and the irregularities, carelessness and neglect of servants — seemed a thing impossible. I was in this state of doubt as to my ability to exercise the virtue so much needed in my household, when Hannah came to the door of the room where I was sitting in no very happy mood, and notified me of some need in the kitchen in an exceedingly provoking way. I was about replying sharply and angrily; but suddenly checking myself, I said in a quiet, mild way, 'Very well, Hannah. I will see that it is supplied.'
"The girl stood for some moments, looking at me with an expression of surprise on her face, and then walked away. This was a victory over myself, and I felt, also, a victory over her. Not half an hour elapsed, before, on passing near the kitchen, she said to me, in a very respectful manner:
"'I forgot to tell you, this morning, that the tea was all out. But I can run around to the store and get some in a few minutes.'
"'Do so, if you please, Hannah,' I returned, without evincing the slightest feeling of annoyance at her neglect; 'and try, if you can, to have tea ready precisely at six o'clock.'
"'I will have it ready, ma'am,' she replied. And it was ready.
"Had I not exercised patience and self-control, the interview would have been something after this fashion: about ten minutes before tea-time, Hannah would have come to me and said, with provoking coolness —
"'The tea's all out.'
"To which I would have replied sharply —
"'Why, in the name of goodness, did not you say so this morning? You knew that you had used the last of it! I declare, you are the most provoking creature I ever knew. You'll have to go to the store and get some.'
"'I'm not fit to be seen in the street,' she would in all probability have replied.
"And then I, losing all patience, would have soundly scolded her, and gained nothing but a sick-headache, perhaps, for my pains. Tea, in all probability, would have been served at about eight o'clock. You see the difference."
"And a very substantial one it is."
"Isn't it? As you well said, there is a power in patience undreamed of by those who seek not its exercise. Next morning, when I had any occasion to speak to Hannah, I did so with much mildness, and if I had occasion to find fault, requested a change rather than enunciated a reproof. The girl changed as if by magic. She became respectful in her manner toward me, and evinced a constant concern to do everything as I wished to have it done. Not once since, have we had a meal as much as ten minutes later than the appointed time."
I could not but express the happiness I felt at the change, and urge my excellent friend to persevere. This she has done, and the whole aspect of things in her family has changed.
There are times, however, when, from ill-health, or a return of old states, Mrs. Martinet recedes again into fretfulness; but the reaction upon her is so immediate and perceptible, that she is driven in self-defense, to patience and forbearance — the result of which is order and quiet in her family just in the degree that patience and forbearance are exercised.