Seeing through to the truth needs patience more than activity

When people rush about, they tend to stir up all kinds of confusions and distractions that make it far harder to see the fundamentals of what is taking place. Like throwing a handful of stones into a tranquil pool, they ruin all hope of seeing down to the bottom in the ripples and reflections they just caused. Often, the only way to see clearly what is going on is simply to watch and wait until all the fuss dies down.

In 2000, I visited the island of Tobago. The area where I stayed was famous for the clarity of its waters and wonderful diving and snorkeling opportunities on reefs only a few hundred yards off shore. I was looking forward to seeing the beauty of the corals and the fishes.

It didn�€™t happen.

Just before I arrived, there had been unseasonal rainstorms. The run-off brought down mud from the hills around and stirred up sand and sediment from the sea bottom. Together, these reduced visibility in some places to zero. Everything was still there, but I couldn�€™t see it. And since I had only a few days, it was not going to clear enough before I had to leave. What ought to have been crystalline waters were murky and yellowish. The storms, with their high winds and driving rain, had stirred everything into a thin soup.

Don�€™t stir up more than you must

My experience mirrors exactly what happens when you charge around in frantic action, ignoring the need to see down clearly into the deeper causes behind events.

The more turbulent you let your life become, the harder it is to make sense of what is happening. You�€™re like a child with a stick who splashes the water in a quiet pool, churning up the mud and silt from the bottom. The more the child pokes around trying to see whatever is in the water, the murkier it becomes. The only way to discover what�€™s there is to wait patiently for the mud and turbulence to settle and the water to become clear again.

Patience and quietness are grossly underrated in our society, where continual, sometimes extreme, action is seen as the ideal. Too many people are behaving like the child with the stick. In their efforts to see a way ahead, they frantically stir their lives and all around them into turbulence. They bring up all kinds of muck from the past that is better left where it is. They splash around in the pool, creating currents that keep the water turbid and opaque. The harder they try, the less they see. All that frantic action has left them profoundly uncertain about what is really there—just when they most need to know, so that they can make sensible decisions.

Don�€™t imitate Corporal Jones

There used to be a comedy series on British television, called �€œDad�€™s Army,�€� about a hopeless band of local volunteers in the 1940s attempting to guard their stretch of coast against Nazi invasion. Amongst them was Corporal Jones: an elderly veteran of the Boer War and the local butcher. Whenever some problem arose, Corporal Jones�€™s immediate reaction was to run around, shouting: �€œDon�€™t panic!�€�

I saw many versions of Corporal Jones in my time in various corporations. Faced with a problem, their mouths, legs, and arms went into overdrive, while their minds shut down. The worse things got, the more frantic and ill-directed their actions became. They never even considered the one thing that might have helped—waiting quietly until the fuss died down and it was clear what the true problem was—mostly because they had no time to consider anything in their demented stirring-up of every distraction and source of confusion. Ignoring their own panic, they kept telling everyone else to keep their heads.

Why patience matters

There are many times when the best course of action is simply to wait patiently for all the fuss and fury to die down, whether that�€™s inside your own mind or outside in the world around you. Let things clear, so that you can see properly. Then the answer has a better chance of showing through.

Of course, doing this will probably cause the Corporal Joneses of this world to shout that you don�€™t appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Ignore them. The graver the situation, the more you need to see ahead clearly. Running around, throwing yourself and everyone else into the kind of panicky action that creates a great deal of heat and no light at all, isn�€™t the response you need.

Wait patiently for the water to clear in your little pool. Only then can you see what might be lurking at the bottom.

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