Power and Patience

A sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
READING: from Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
November 12, 2000

By way of introducing my theme of Power and Patience, I wish to dwell for a moment on the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. But I refer to his story more than his poetry, per se. In a moment I shall read a short passage from one of his Letters to a Young Poet, a passage that could be one of the most Powerful messages of the 20th century, especially formative for us as UUs. But first, a few words about the context of the quote.

I cannot claim to be any expert on Rilke, but I am especially intrigued by the fact that the series of 10 Letters contained in this little book were created by what we would today identify as a "young adult." In the summer of 1903, when the Letter to be quoted from was written, Rilke was all of 27, but reasonably well established in his own right and already a source of advice for a spectrum of even younger writers, many of whom he responded to kindly in letters but never met.

There is certainly great wisdom to be shared by elders in every culture, but here we see how important insight might manifest in a young life as well. Perhaps what he lacked in years he made up for with earnestness. Much of Rilke’s reputation as a counselor was earned by the thoughtfulness of his replies.

But he might have easily gone a different direction, given a particularly influential experience of his early youth, when his very conventional parents made him spend five long years in a military school, a period he later described as "one single terrible damnation." Not only was he a rather slight child, rather unfit for the rigorous demands of such a setting, but he was also steadily abused and victimized by his mean-spirited peers.

This era scarred the sensitive young Rilke enormously, leaving him "spiritually afflicted" as well as physically ill. But bitterness did not find fertile soil in his young soul, perhaps because poetry became a naturally creative refuge for him. His success at not succumbing to the pain of that time was then demonstrated by an openhearted willingness to entertain inquiries from younger writers looking for counsel.

I marvel at the degree of Patience that must have been required to endure five cruel years of a setting fundamentally counter to his temperament and constitution. And then for him to emerge in the world and offer such richly authentic writing that so often praises human existence—this evidences a profound depth of heart and character. No wonder his work touches us. Rilke knew first hand about misery, yet he consciously identified with beauty. The inner strength that enabled him to withstand pain he then channeled into evocative expression. I think the Power of his writing must have been rooted in a supreme Patience.

How did he do it? Well, listen to a passage that might just hold a key to this particular mingling of Power and Patience. To the young poet, Rilke sends this advice:

I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. [Letters to a Young Poet, Four]

Yes, "Try to love the questions themselves… live everything. Live the questions." Almost a century ago, Rainer Maria Rilke suggested a challenging truth for which we still hunger. I would paraphrase it as: Have faith in your own path; its Power unfolds from your Patience. For out of this posture emerges whatever answer is right for you. It may take a while—be Patient!—but it will harness the Power of your authenticity.

A short but strong song written by my friend and UU colleague Mary Grigolia, connects me to this theme, #396: "I Know This Rose will open. I know my fear will burn away. I know my soul will unfurl its wings. I know this rose will open." I invite you—no I dare you to sing these lines as if you were their author, and to help you imagine this, we’ll sing them more than once…

Power and Patience

A sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
November 12, 2000

I Know This Rose is a Powerful song, brimming with hope and confidence—can you feel that about yourself as you sing? But it’s realistic, too, acknowledging that our fear and our furled wings are also very much with us. Still, it illuminates a kind of Patience that would encourage us to live the questions now, and know that a Power will emerge as we stay true to our course. Gradually, authentically we might live "into the answer." I know this rose will open.

To "live everything," including the questions that face us is a demanding but empowering spiritual adventure, perhaps the quintessential one for non-dogmatic UUs. A comparable challenge is finding the Patience to live the questions now in a way that allows true and Powerful answers to emerge. Something about this quest has begged my examination.

On and off for about a year now I have mused on the curious subject of how and where Power and Patience might converge, and I’ve asked various friends and acquaintances what the intersection might look and feel like to them. In my research, I actually found that it’s very easy to get drawn into a conversation about Patience. This is an acknowledged virtue, a desired and recognizable quality, even when honored in the breech. We Americans might generally imagine ourselves as Patient, knowing "this rose will open."

Meanwhile, I’m also busy thinking about how to test another pet theory of mine about Patience: that many Patient people share a common passion, which is baseball.

But the larger task I’ve set myself in this study is to attach the calming Virtue of Patience to the pulse that Power provides. Power is evidently not nearly as approachable a subject, however, and I have noted how much people seem to want to just stay with talk about Patience. Linking the two ups the ante, I suspect, for, unlike nice, soothing, reliable Patience, Power comes in many, many shades and dynamics, often with an edge. It’s a bit harder to really know that "my fear will burn away," that my soul’s wings will unfurl and thus display my innate Power.

As I asked around about this subject, there was quite a dearth of conversational response whenever I pushed the inquiry past easy insights about Patience toward a possible linkage with this other relatively intangible concept, Power. Not once, even, did anyone mention nonviolent resistance, perhaps the most obvious linkage of the two.

My particular interest is in discovering more and more paths to Power wielded benignly, as in "Power with" versus "Power over." Yes, Power can be defined as "the agency to act" [Hillman, pg. 97, see below], and I will use that reference in some examples shortly.

But I also sense an added weight to the word that is less about action, per se, and more about presence. So, the Power that attracts me involves a potent but humble accumulation of human maturity, such as embodied by the Dalai Lama, to use an extreme example. Maybe you know some people who just carry their benign Power in marvelously enhancing ways.

My bias here is that I believe this kind of benign Power is an important element in living a rich and meaningful life, and I suspect it emerges from a healthy balance with Patience. Speaking of the Dalai Lama (whose entire adult life has been spent Patiently in exile), this quality of balancing Power and Patience is what I find intriguing in most kinds of Buddhism. An abiding image for me is the classic Buddhist reminder that the most Powerful shaper of hard stone is soft running water, which takes its time to wear down the rock. Power is not always found in obviously dominant forms.

In order to approach more thoroughly the balancing of Power and Patience, we good UUs might, of course, value a quick treatment of what it is not, so let’s go to the grid:

Power and Patience Grid

This diagram is just a tool, a model you may be familiar with: the horizontal X axis crossed by a vertical Y axis. It’s a standard algebra formation, but here there are assigned values at opposite ends of each axis, instead of the mathematical plus and minus. In this case, it’s "Power" at the top and "No Power" on the bottom; "Patience" on the right and "No Patience" on the left. Each of the four quadrants represents the mingling of the two adjacent aspects. (Various psychological questionnaires employ this method of graphing their results, by diagramming different leadership or personality styles, for instance.)

I’ve added small ovals with what seem to me to be reasonable short descriptions of what an experience in each quadrant might be like. Let’s move through three to get where we’re headed: the one stated by the title of this sermon. Remember that this is just a model I dreamed up, that I hope you might find of even some small use in understanding your own lives and worlds.

Okay, the upper left "A" quadrant is what might happen when one has Power but No Patience, not unlike the posture we might associate with a tyrant. I think this combination of Power but No Patience could manifest as "fearful control." Scratch the surface of any tyrant, and you’re likely to find a significant degree of fear.

Psychologist James Hillman has written a helpful book called, Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses, from which I learned a lot. I recommend it. Very early on in the book he describes how the relationship between Power and control is tinged with fear:

If I define power simply as "control," I will never be able to let go of control without fear of losing power. Trapped by this concept into paranoid vigilance, competitive exertions and demonstrative leadership, I will never discover the subtle power of influence, authority, generosity or patient resistance [pg. 9–10].

In one sentence there, Hillman vividly illuminates both the impatient energies of so-called "control freaks" and the kinds of positive Power those types of leaders miss out on. Maybe you know of people like this in your orbits.

In Zorba the Greek, author Nicos Kazantzakis tells about another angle of Power without Patience. Zorba noticed a cocoon on a piece of bark, nearly ready to break open and let free the nascent butterfly within. But he was impatient to see this wondrous act of nature, so he breathed on the cocoon to warm it and urge it along.

Well, the emergent butterfly was indeed fooled into bursting forth too soon and died quickly in his hand, not yet prepared for survival outside the cocoon. That little body, Zorba says, was the greatest weight on his conscience he had ever felt. He had the Power to control its evolution, but his impatience and fear of missing something was destructive. He did not trust the eternal rhythm of Life.

Perhaps you have known some moments when you were in control of something but impatient enough that a consequence came back to haunt you.

Okay then, moving south, down into the quadrant marked "B," we see what might happen with No Patience and No Power, described as an experience of "anxious frustration." When we are unable to affect a situation and unable to let it be, it can feel like a debilitating paradox.

Some twenty years ago, I was attempting to finish the installation of a new speedometer head in the dashboard of a car. (This may be a dubious and mundane example, but it taught me something along these lines that I well remember.) I had my head under the dash, my body stretched and contorted across the front seat, my hands reaching as far up underneath as I could get, trying to slip a small retaining spring over a hook to secure the new speedo head assembly. I had also spent too much time on this job already and was really ready for it to be done.

The spring was not cooperating, however, and I was quite peeved. Plus, the blood was draining from my arms. But I was stubbornly committed to the task, despite its resistance, and I was using some pretty choice phrases to loudly describe my consternation. There was plenty of blood in my face.

Then my pal, Sal DeAngelo, came by and heard me in all my expressive glory. Finally, shaking his head, he yelled at me, in equally colorful language, something to the effect of; "Yo! Take a break, for cryin’ out loud!" And I realized: "Why, I have no Power left in my hands and no Patience either. I’m anxiously frustrated. I should take a break." (Well, okay, it didn’t quite sound like that then.)

But I did take a break. I relaxed a bit, collected myself and in just a few minutes went back at it, and wha’d’ya know, that spring slipped onto its hook right away. I’ll always remember Sal for helping me learn an important lesson. When I find myself with neither Power nor Patience, I "take a break!" to get find some larger perspective and get more centered.

Maybe you have techniques you use when confronted with situations that inspire anxious frustration.

Now let’s move over to the lower right quadrant, marked "C," where we find the intersection of Patience, yes, but No Power. This can appear as "ineffective passivity," and it can be a good choice when we judge that an issue or situation isn’t worth too much of our precious energy. We just let it go. Another kind of "ineffective passivity" can be an understandable posture resulting from oppression, where one "puts up with" otherwise intolerable conditions.

Then again, when one is merely Patient, without the ability or the will to affect things, without a way to grow into one’s Power, it might indicate an unhealthy kind of passivity. This can look like complicity, or even co-dependence, sometimes locked in relationship with someone who might be rooted back, diagonally, in that first quadrant, and looking to work out of their "fearful control" on someone else.

Maybe you know folks who have gotten Patiently stuck in a place where they have no Power, who would like to change their circumstances, but are ineffectively passive about it.

Well, the solution to all three of these seemingly incomplete dilemmas might be to get into the upper right quadrant "D," where one experiences both Power and Patience together in what I would call "authentic witness." I think it is a Very Good Thing when Power and Patience unite to complement and enhance each other.

Here in this abundant quadrant, Patience is actively present, as opposed to the passive Patience of the previous quadrant. Same Patience, new posture—now empowered to bear direct witness to whatever issue or setting might demand attention. This does not necessarily mean direct action, though, since the kind of Power we’re involved with is not really about physical force or aggressive control. It is, again, a benign Power that reflects a potent but humble accumulation of human maturity.

Such Patient Power can indeed be aimed, however, at injustice, as the legacy of nonviolent resistance would testify. Mahatma Gandhi and then Martin Luther King, Jr., each led very Patiently Powerful movements for change, using what they each called "Soul Force" to bear authentic witness to the issues of their day. There may be no stronger example of the convergence of Patience and Power than Soul Force. Its modern demonstration has forever increased our range of options in response to oppression.

I also think of the ancient Chinese tale of a farmer whose philosophy understands life’s Powerfully balanced cycles through the Ying and the Yang of all things. This farmer had a few horses that escaped the corral one day, and his sympathetic neighbor came by to exclaim, "Oh, what a terrible loss!" But the farmer responded, "Maybe yes, maybe no." And he went about his business.

A day or two later, those escaped horses found their way back to the corral and actually brought with them a few wild horses, too. The neighbor dropped by again and celebrated, "What good fortune!" To which the farmer replied: "Maybe yes, maybe no." Shortly thereafter the farmer’s only son was training one of the new horses and fell off, breaking his leg, so he was unable to work the farm for some time. Again, the neighbor sympathized with the farmer: "What a bad predicament you are in!" And again, the farmer would only say: "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The very next day, the Imperial Army came through, forcing young men to join for a campaign far away, but the son was not taken because of his broken leg. When the neighbor congratulated the farmer on his good luck, guess what he said in reply. ("Maybe yes, maybe no.") And so on. There is no other end to this story.

Now, we in the West might look upon that farmer as Patient, certainly, but maybe not very Powerful. I say, look again. Centered as he was in his understanding of the universe, he brought to each circumstance a balanced presence, an "authentic witness" that might not be very excitable, but it was true to his essential nature. I propose that to the extent we are Patiently true to our authentic self and live coherently with our values, we will be a Powerful presence, wherever we are.

There is a supreme difference, I think, between acquiring Power from without—usually by an aggressive or competitive move—and growing Power from within, which is more what I’m getting at, and more of where the farmer was living. Growing one’s ability to be Powerfully Patient is like learning to appreciate beauty: it can be so simple—just be aware!—but there are also many angles and levels that will emerge if allowed and cultivated.

I have a colleague and mentor, Gordon McKeeman, who retired about ten years ago to Charlottesville, VA, but before that he was president of Starr King School for UU Ministry in Berkeley during the four years I spent there in professional preparation. During that time Gordon and I had numerous good conversations, some of which were, in fact, in a focused tutorial about Power and my relationship with the subject. I rang him up as I was preparing this sermon, and he offered some helpful thoughts again, especially about the role of growth in living a Patiently Powerful life. (To my mind, he is one of the best examples of such living.)

When Gordon runs into a dilemma, he imagines it as an indicator that some growth is probably desirable. Then he tries to allow that growth to take place without being impatient. This was instructive to me. Can I learn to see any given dilemma of my life as an indicator that some kind of growth is called for, and then—even more of a challenge—Patiently let that growth unfold, whatever it might look like or bring? Therein, I suspect, lies a path toward a Powerfully mature presence.

Certainly, when I lose Patience, it diminishes my potential for growth, as avenues of authentic development are shut down by the specters of fear and control. Instead, when I find Patience, I can grow in breadth and depth, as a deepening faith in myself inspires openness and promotes benign Power. (This is the theory, anyway. I’m trying.)

Gordon also reminded me how a Powerful Patience can arise from and flow out of our Reverence for Life. When I am steadily appreciative of the wholeness and holiness all around me, I am centered in an awareness that sustains and strengthens me. It inspires my Patience as it grows my Power from within, in concert with the natural world, and if we know anything about the natural world, it has a Patient rhythm to be respected. Remember Zorba and the emergent butterfly.

The growth of our individual, personal Power is a noble aspiration, assisted, I maintain, by any increase in our capacity for Patience. But there is one final aspect of this intersection that I also want to touch upon. How might the combination of these two attributes appear in community, in groups, in institutions?

Probably the foremost UU theologian of the 20th century was James Luther Adams, an expert on the theology of voluntary association, the ways people come together in groups. In many essays he declared how the associations we support are the true test of our presence on the planet, for those connections give substance to our individual nature and will be our legacy. One of my favorite sayings from Adams is his purposeful play on a teaching from Jesus, which he modernized into: "By their groups you shall know them."

More to the point of our present discussion, here is a significant quote from James Luther Adams:

Anything that exists effectively in history must have form. And the creation of a form requires power. It requires…the power of organization and the organization of power…

And what do we know about the "form" of human voluntary organizations called churches, which almost by definition contain imperfect people? First, there are usually Power and authority issues galore. And second, well, let’s just say the opportunities to practice Patience abound. Leaders—lay and ordained—who master the art of Patience in largely voluntary institutions are worth their weight in gold, and can have considerable benign influence on the effectiveness of the group, especially over time.

The form of community that contemporary UU congregations often seek to build seems to center on the word diversity a lot. We honor diversity, inclusiveness, variety, freedom. But without a large degree of accompanying Patience, these Powerful ideals are often diverted into shallow water, where they can run aground.

Here's maybe the most pertinent conclusion I have reached on this subject: I submit that the Power any community will muster toward its ideals and goals will be in direct proportion to its Patience with the processes of community life. There, I said it: process—a word that can sometimes scare people away even faster than another heavily laden word these days: conflict.

Busy people just don’t seem to have time to be Patient anymore, and community process, if it’s going to be effective, often requires Patience. "The Power of organization and the organization of Power" just can’t be rushed (unless we're willing to allow a dictatorship).

This is a contemporary conundrum—the need for Patience yet an apparent lack of time for it—and I invite your reflection on our dilemma. But for now, in closing, with Rilke, "I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselveslive the questions now." Living into the answers, as authentically as you can, is where your Power, our Power lies.

Or, as Kenny Rogers (the singer, not the pitcher) once put it, comparing Life to a card game: "Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em." I know your soul will unfurl its wings. May your Power flow as your Patience grows.

Sunday Sermons | Newsletter Columns
What is a PBUUC Sunday Service Like?
| Upcoming Sunday Services at PBUUC | Texts of Previous Sunday Sermons

Back to PBUUC's Home Page

Click here for more advanced search options.

If you are experiencing any technical problems with this page, click here.