Nov 10, 2020

Patience Will Win the Pandemic Race

One of the keys to making headway against the coronavirus will be practicing the human virtue of patience.

By William Christopher Stewart

Back in March, my friend Andrew Serazin, President of the Templeton World Charity Foundation, wrote a prescient piece on what he calls “the pandemic virtues.” Appropriately enough, we look to science for tools to curb the contagion. Just as vitally, Andrew writes, “we must take advantage of humanity’s built-in techniques for dealing with collective threats.” In particular, he illustrates the value of trust, willpower and generosity as “habits that provide the basis for practical and positive action” in the face of the novel coronavirus crisis. I’d like to add one more virtue to the list: patience.

The importance of this underrated virtue occurred to me months ago, but was driven home to me by a recent article by Julie Bosman, Sarah Mervosh and Marc Santora in The New York Times. According to health officials, they write, “growing impatience is a new challenge as they try to slow the latest outbreaks, and it threatens to exacerbate what they fear is turning into a devastating autumn.” The gains we’ve made, often at great cost, threaten to be undone by growing “pandemic fatigue,” and “an odd mix of resignation and heedlessness.”

Many things in life — and I would say all of the most important things — like relationships, lasting growth, both material or spiritual, and trust itself, require patience, usually over long periods. Twenty years ago, Eugene Peterson wrote a book about the Songs of Ascents, a collection of songs recorded in the Old Testament book of Psalms (Psalms 120–134), which were sung by pilgrims for inspiration and encouragement on the way to Jerusalem. The book is entitled, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. In it, Peterson talks about the challenge of spiritual growth in a society habituated to instant gratification, and the title alone aptly sums up a crucial need at the present moment. Bosman, Mervosh and Santora link both the latest surge in cases worldwide as well as the growing mental health crisis, reflected in the sharp increases in overdose deaths on the rise in many American cities, to this phenomenon, fueled by a lack of patience. As difficult as it is to come up with the scientific and technological breakthroughs we need, harder still, it turns out, is the seemingly simple task of sustaining the changes in our behavior that will enable us, as Serazin writes, “to navigate our daily lives despite the threat of infection.”

Facing a very different but no less deadly threat in the middle of World War II, the residents of a tiny village in France called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, confronted the threat of the occupying Nazis with what local pastor André Trocmé called “the weapons of the spirit.” Not only did they maintain their spiritual freedom throughout the nightmare of that time, but they also sheltered and saved thousands of Jews. Their story is told in a 1987 documentary by Pierre Sauvage, who was born to Jewish parents in the village at the time, and the focus of a book by Peter Hallie called, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. We could learn a lot from their example of patience, endurance, and courage in the midst of calamity. They drew from deep wells of faith and tradition rooted in memories of their Huguenot ancestors. Along with our science, we too must resist the threats we face with “the weapons of the spirit.”

Beginning in January 2021, The Templeton Religion Trust is funding two years of research led by Dr. Sarah Schnitker and Ph.D. candidate Juliette Ratchford of Baylor University on the psychological, theological and philosophical underpinnings of patience, an understudied virtue increasingly relevant in our high-tech, fast-paced and pluralistic world. For starters, they define patience as “the ability to stay calm but actively engaged in the face of frustration, suffering, or waiting.” The hope is that this conceptual and empirical project will help galvanize a cross-disciplinary study of patience that will in turn improve interventions to increase patience in both individuals and society, promoting positive functioning and human flourishing. Not a moment too soon.


W. Christopher Stewart is the chief grants officer of the Templeton Religion Trust. He joined the Trust in 2013, after twenty years on the faculty of Houghton College in New York State.