catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 11 :: 2013.05.24 — 2013.06.06


Patience and profit

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold
Call that profit

Wendell Berry, from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

That kind of profit takes a long time to realize.  It takes a magnanimous perspective.  It takes patience.

My grandmother warned me about patience.  I was the child anxious for the next thing, ready to receive the promised treat.  She calmly, repeatedly counseled me that I needed to learn patience.  In my ignorance and rush, I thought learning patience was a waste of time.  I only complied to the extent that I waited (not patiently) for whatever I wanted to appear or occur.  Nothing much changed inside of me.  I merely waited it out — agitated, impatient — and then reveled when the wait was over.

When the leaves fall from the trees in autumn, we don’t call that “harvest.”  When they are crackly underfoot and piled up around the yard, we don’t call that “harvest.”  Months or maybe even years from now, when they no longer resemble leaves but have become crumbly and black and fragrant like the earth, and there are new, old-crackly leaves on top of them, we still won’t call that “harvest.”  We will wait.  Patiently.  We will wait for mold to emerge from rich blackness and when we see that new life growing from the steamy heap of crumbled former life, then and only then will we proclaim harvest. 

That’s the moment patience turns to profit.  When we no longer remember what the leaves looked like or which year they fell from the trees, we will declare our profit.

I want to relax into this kind of time.

Since childhood, I have become more patient, but I spend more time worrying about wasting time than I do absorbing its passing.  If I were involved in the leaf-to-mold profit cycle, I’d be poking at the dead stump in the woods to see if I could turn up some mushrooms in the meantime.

This year, I had two different conversations with students related to time.  I suggested to the first one that she might consider practicing a particular spiritual discipline for one month, in order to gain some perspective on her problem.  She said, “I’d consider doing it for a week, maybe.”  When a week is the “big” time commitment you are willing to give to something — particularly to something unknown or unpredictable that threatens and promises to change you — you will not enjoy the unfolding of time and discipline as they carry you into a new space.  You will likely not make it to the mold harvest.

The second student came to speak to me about the break up of a long-term relationship and said, “I don’t want those years to have been wasted.”  Besides heartbreak, what that comment demonstrates is that we place value on what “turns out” or produces profit — and “profit” is defined narrowly.  In this instance, profit equals a relationship that continues on; only “success” in the relationship equates time well spent.

There is no room for recalculation or backtracking when we think like this.  It’s a shame, since “failure” teaches, too, if we are willing to learn.  Relationships are a waste of time if we only see them as waste rather than seeing an era that continues to produce a harvest in the years to come.  Most relationships are like leaves — not harvested until sufficient time and weather have taken hold.  “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary / some in the wrong direction,” Berry writes.  In the age of the omnipresent GPS, it doesn’t make sense to make tracks in the wrong direction.  There’s no excuse for that.  It’s a waste of time.  What will you have to show for it?

It’s a good question: what will I have to show for it…if I work long hours, take this Saturday off, spend an hour watching the sun set, choose what makes my heart sing, put myself in the way of a spiritual discipline for a whole month, take a walk without my phone or earphones, get the next degree, buy the more expensive car, live without a car, save up my vacation days, blow all my vacation days, spend time every day doing something that no one else knows about (like writing poetry or sitting in silence or playing the guitar or caring for someone with dementia or reading scripture)?  What will I have to show for it?

“For what will it profit them, to gain the whole world, and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mark 8: 36-37)  The only profit worth chasing is the one that enriches your life, your soul.  The only real gain we can collect or achieve is the one that enlarges our capacity to love and our ability to see Christ in one another.  The only investments, financial or otherwise, worth the time and effort are those that raise non-financial capital, too:  humility, honor, trust, integrity, love, beauty, justice, truth.

Profit is what we value and, if we are doing it right, what we value changes shape over a lifetime, like leaves to mold. 

It’s out of favor now, but we used to speak of a “waste of time” as elapsed time, simply the passage of time gone by.  We still speak of a “waste of land or water,” meaning a broad, uncultivated expanse.  Combining those two angles, perhaps we need the passage of time in which it seems nothing is growing or happening or being cultivated in order for profit to emerge.  Fallow.  Purposely uncultivated.  Maybe patience is learning to pay attention to what seems like nothing at the time, riding the waste (expanse) of time like a wave headed, eventually, to shore.

You can cultivate the magnanimous perspective.  You can stop waiting and start observing.  You can stop bearing the ticking clock and practice patience.  These are internal processes you can lean into, that produce new life from what is rotten, old, spent or seemingly useless.

Abide the wait.  Being present is the only goal.  There may be mold to harvest later, but right now we enjoy the way the sun steams the heap of newly black earth, breathe in the fragrance, feel the warmth on our own skin, recognize in the place we would have sworn was full of decay, new life and the touch of God’s hand.

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