Feel Better Frustration Nature Patience Poetry Koan Things My Garden Has Taught Me


All things come to he who waits, is not entirely true. Even the Victorian poet Violet Fane who coined the phrase feels the need to qualify it in the next line of her poem:

‘Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),
But something answers soft and sad,
‘They come, but often come too late.’

Perhaps the alternative motto, Good things come to those who wait, used to advertise slow-pouring foodstuffs like Guinness and ketchup, is a better one for the gardener.

The patience of the gardener is not necessarily about impulsivity and self-control, famously put to the test by marshmallow-proffering Walter Mischel in 1970 with 16 boys and 16 girls at Bing Nursery School in Stanford. Nor is it wholly about temporal, or hyperbolic discounting, where the value of a more distant reward (e.g. starting to save for retirement as a teenager) is “diminished or discounted by the time intervening between the choice and the reward” {1}.

In fact, one could see the pursuit of gardening as a curious reversal of this law. Gardeners are often thinking two or three seasons in advance, nurturing seeds, as I am doing at the moment with my Hardy Annuals and Biennials, for plants they might only enjoy a year or two away.

Perhaps what allows us to patiently carry out these tasks are the other factors at work tempering our very human (and cultural) predilection for instant gratification: instant downloads, instant communication, buy-today-delivered-tomorrow. Perhaps we sow, and water, and wait, not necessarily to benefit from practising a virtue, but because plants from garden centres are expensive, and so to have them in the quantity we like, it’s worth the effort of cultivation. Also, commercial nurseries can only stock one thousandth of any genus and species, so to have choice, and diversity in the garden, we need to cultivate patience and industriousness. Maybe this is what Violet Fane really meant in her inclusive motto, that there are small but no-less pleasurable rewards to be had in the process of waiting for larger rewards to arrive. As long as we can give the process the time and attention it needs.

Rewards like a handful of Gypsophila, Echium ‘Blue Bedder’, or Black Beauty Poppy seedlings poking their tiny cotyledon heads out of the styrofoam-looking surrounds of perlite covering their seed trays. Delicate, embryonic shoots leaning gracefully towards the light source. Or a pink chard plant, grown for seed, after two years of cultivation, finally rendering hundreds of its corky nibs, which will no doubt keep me and everyone I know in pink chard for years to come.

Waiting and gardening go hand in hand: waiting for plants to grow, for tomatoes to ripen, even just waiting for a large watering can to fill brings us into contact with whatever resources we have patience-wise (I have varying amounts depending on what I’m waiting for). Herein we find lessons to be learnt, useful for problems with impatience and self-control outside the garden too. So these are three lessons I’ve learnt, though as with all lessons, I often need to re-learn them to some extent on a daily basis.

Lesson 1: Don’t let the waiting define you

We can wait for anything as long as we explain to that impatient part of ourselves that this is not the only undertaking for the day, or our lives. The Hardy Annuals I’m nurturing through autumn and winter won’t bloom for another six months (at least). If there were nothing else for me to do in the garden but wait for these 100 or so plants to mature, the wait might begin to feel like an interminable, excruciating burden.

I sometimes wonder if Beckett’s day-and-night waiting duo, Estragon and Vladimir, might have fared differently had they had a little garden or allotment on which to grow their turnips and carrots? With nothing to do but wait, the mind can unravel, even to the point of self-annihilation:

VLADIMIR: What do we do now?
VLADIMIR: Yes, but while waiting.
ESTRAGON: What about hanging ourselves?
VLADIMIR: Hmm. It’d give us an erection.
ESTRAGON: (highly excited). An erection!
VLADIMIR: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!
VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.
ESTRAGON: We can always try.
VLADIMIR: Go ahead.
ESTRAGON: After you.
VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

This probably sounds a little obvious (the lessons our garden teaches us usually are) but if we can find a way to meaningfully occupy ourselves whilst waiting for something or someone, the labour of waiting can become more like a clock ticking along in the background, rather than constant-checking anxiety.

Lesson 2: Calm, Connected & Composed vs. Hot, Fast & Urgent

As you may have gathered by now from the various books and articles that followed the publication of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, we live our lives predominantly through two neural networks. One, an emotionally hot, Go! system which does well in situations requiring quick reactions to emotion-arousing stimuli that have the potential to trigger pleasure, pain, or fear. It’s this system that largely kept our savannah-dwelling ancestors alive for millions of years in the midst of hungry predators much stronger and faster than them.

The other system, centred in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a more modern adaptation. It is also our most “human” bit of brain kit we might say, the source of creativity and imagination, of philanthropy and kindness, helping us to regulate the more impulsive thoughts, actions and emotions of System 1. It does this by sometimes being able to put the brakes on whatever feels Hot, Fast, Urgent Go!, slowing System 1 down (i.e. getting it/us to wait) long enough so as to be able to process its reactions in a way that is more in sync with our enduring values and ideals.

In Schema Therapy, this system is sometimes called ‘The Healthy Adult’, in Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), ‘Self’. Both notions could be said to have arisen out of Freud’s original distinction between the Id (system 1) and Ego (system 2).

If waiting often feels like an inner tug of war, this is perhaps because we are experiencing some of the push and pull polarization between these different parts of our-selves.

The behaviour we call “patience” is only possible if we are able to stay in the Self-led, System 2 driver’s seat of the pre-frontal cortex, even whilst all hell is breaking loose in the back seat. By “all hell”, I mean that often overpowering-feeling, that overwhelming sense of negative emotions (frustration, outrage, dread, shame, hopelessness) taking up all the space of consciousness, so that we are consumed, flooded, completely “blended” with this hurricanes of the mind, threatening as it often does to push us off course and into a ditch of despair. All hell is breaking loose on the “back seat”, because neurologically speaking this is exactly where our hell is positioned: in the brain’s limbic system which houses our hypothalamus (the emotional thermostat of the brain), the amygdala (the brain’s threat-activated fire alarm), and hippocampus, which encodes the information through which we “read” the world.

Even just becoming aware of this front/back seat separation, and our ability to maintain an internal partition between these two systems (more black cab setup than Smart car if you like), can help us to keep better hold of our calm, centred and connected Self, which helps to make our wait more tolerable.

There are a number of ways of creating this healthy separation: focused, calmative paced breathing works, as do other mindfulness techniques; putting the different parts of us on different chairs can to mirror the external separation without that we are seeking to maintain within; also visualising these parts whilst in Self, and then trying to understand them better or become more aligned with them and their needs is something I often use with myself and with clients in therapy.

Lesson 3: Don’t wait by yourself

As bleak as Waiting for Godot is as a piece of theatre, one is thankful that although the two central protagonists don’t (and might never) meet Godot, they still have each other. Their patience is a shared endeavour.

We don’t always have someone at our side to help us wait. This was the challenge for the Bing pre-schoolers in 1970 trying not to pounce on the single marshmallow left on the table, so that they might be rewarded later with two. Had a parent been in the room with them, they would have been able to utilise the stay-on-track support and guidance of Mom’s pre-frontal cortex to buttress their underdeveloped PFC.

As adults, with more developed PFCs, we can use strategies (as described above) to rope in our core Self to play that parental role in helping us to tolerate our frustrations and upset, to wait. But I find it can also help to break open and drink from vessels which contain whatever elixir fuels willpower. We sometimes call these vessels poems. I have a stock of these patient poems which I turn to in times of need, and will sometimes, to get the juice right into the impatient limbic system, will walk about learning these words from other people who struggled like me with waiting.

Like Milton, frustrated by his blindness and the way in which it has undercut his literary productivity, who hears the voice of Patience, personified, murmuring in his ear some tough truths (“God doth not need/Either man’s work or his own gifts”) followed by a kind balm: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Or Charles Simic, who finds the secret, patient face of his inner life in the shoes beside his bed.

Or David Whyte, who finds in stairs, soap dishes, window latches, “and the tiny speaker in the phone” companionship to ease the weight/wait of his aloneness:

The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.