The Staying Power of Acting with Impatience

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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When I was about six, my father built a small cabin for me in the woods behind our house. My memory of it is as dim as the light inside it; for while it had an open door, it had no windows. I do remember clearly that the ceiling was too low for my father to stand upright inside it.

I like to think he made it so small deliberately, that he built it proportioned to a child’s imaginary world, but I don’t know. It may be that in those days he could afford nothing but scraps of lumber scavenged from his construction job. I do know this: part of his motivation was his craftsman’s impatience with the unsightly shacks my cousins and I had been cobbling together and calling forts.

The full extent of his impatience I learned one afternoon, nine or ten years later, when I was helping him clean the garage. He directed me to a stack of old 2 x 2s, handed me the circular saw, and told me to cut them into kindling for the fireplace. I’d never used the saw before, and it frightened me. Trying to stand as far from the screeching violence of the whirling blade as I could, I jammed it in the wood. It screamed to a halt. Normally a gentle man, my father grabbed it from me and instead of helping me as he usually did, he ordered me from the garage. Nearly 50 years have passed since that day, and the tool in my shop I handle most awkwardly remains the circular saw.

My father handed down his passion for craftsmanship, for careful, patient work—a gift I rely on as a writer. With that passion, however, he also handed down the aberration of his impatience. Some years ago, I taught a course in writing about environmental issues. A young man, who warned me on the first day of class that he would often disagree with his classmates and me, held our text on global warming as far from his mind as I held my father’s circular saw from my body that afternoon in the garage. Grudgingly, I tolerated his objections, expecting that if I demonstrated patience he would see the basic soundness of the arguments. He never did, and I was never truly patient. At last, in a fit of frustration, he burst out at the author’s “phony science.” Righteously, I exploded. What I said, I’ve mercifully forgotten—something about respecting the integrity of the writer—but I haven’t forgotten how I abused my position, how I figuratively tore the saw from his hand and ordered him from the room.

The next day, of course, I apologized to him and to the class, and by the end of the semester the two of us came to appreciate each other’s intensity. But I’m sure that just as I shudder when I reach for the circular saw in the shop, my student shudders each time the phrase global warming is uttered.