Wednesday’s Wonder Woman: Margaret Thatcher
I’m extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end. – Margaret Thatcher
Sometimes I’ve wondered if me being sick is harder on other people than on me.
Think about it: have you ever felt it harder to watch someone go through something hard, than to go through that thing yourself?
Six years ago next Monday, I was on my hands-and-knees in the tiniest labour room at MSA General Hospital, wondering what on earth is happening to me and when in the world it would be over, and through the haze of nitrous oxide, I heard my doctor tell my husband that maybe he should take a minute outside.
I giggled. It’s called laughing gas for a reason.
But I wasn’t that surprised that he found it harder to watch me be in pain than to be in pain himself.
It’s something I see a lot in my job. Maternal grandmas get overwhelmed at their daughter’s experience; concerned dads are shocked to realize they had no idea what women went through to do this.
Three years ago – when I was struggling to get my white count from 169 to 9 – many of my visitors were more teary than I; many of my helpers were more distressed than I. I knew what was happening to me, I could feel the illness shifting one way or another, and they could only watch and guess.
I felt in a strange bubble then; I knew it would be okay even though it was so, so far from okay.
I realize now that I was on a crash course in learning to be patient with my circumstances.
Ancient Greeks believed there were two types of patience: one that endured circumstance, and another exercised with people. The first is dependent on hope (see my post from last week), the second on mercy.
And, if you’re like me, hope must be easier than mercy, because it’s a lot easier to be patient with circumstances than people.
After all, only the most immature of us will blame other people for our circumstances.
(Huh. Maybe most of us are immature. Interesting.)
See, there’s no one person I could blame for my leukemia. It came out of nowhere. And though it severely altered my life – in good and bad ways, and I will choose to think about the good, thank you – it’s not so hard to be patient with it because, really, what else can I do?
Pain from events might temporarily appear to be someone else’s fault (after all, that’s more interesting). But we usually get past that stage quickly.
Sometimes things just happen.
But when our pain – or just irritation – directly arises from things other people do or say, well…
It really is their fault, right?
Over eleven years ago – when David and I were first dating – we got in an argument about how I was going to spend my weekend. The details aren’t important, but David proceeded to tell me that my weekend plans were a result of personal weakness. He told me things I’d rather not repeat, mostly because they’re really not an accurate representation of who he is, or who I am. But after the blowup and ensuing fight-to-the-death (what other kind of argument would two insanely strong-willed people-who-were-good-friends-for-two-years-before-dating have? We knew what buttons to push… immediately), it turned out that he didn’t actually think any of those things he’d said were wrong with me.
He just felt sad that I wouldn’t be with him that weekend.
My shoulders slumped, anger released in one, long, breath.
A few more – hundred – arguments like this one, and we started to clue in: sometimes we’re too scared to say what we’re actually feeling. Sometimes we form that feeling into an action someone else should do differently so we don’t feel that way anymore.
Sadness is more difficult than anger. Its an internal emotion, unless we’d like to look as attractive as Claire Danes at the end of Romeo and Juliet (seriously, I laugh every time I see her cry in that scene, it’s just… painful to watch).
But anger – anger we can let out. Anger can be someone else’s fault.
Sadness requires more patience than anger. And patience seems to be in increasing short supply.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past three years comforting other people who are more distressed about my leukemia than I am. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining; I’ve received an awful lot more comfort than I’ve passed on. Yet occasionally I run across someone who has to be calmed down about my circumstance at the very moment I don’t feel so calm about it, and heaven knows that one of us better be in control of this thing, so, I fake it. It’s going to be okay, I say. And though I have my moments (stick around this blog long enough and you’ll see them), most of the time I really do believe it will be okay.
I am becoming more patient with my circumstances.
And here’s what I learned this week: the great thing about practiced patience with our circumstances is that it prepares us for the harder task of being more patient with people.
A few days ago, someone asked me if I was sick or something, because they’d heard I’d been having some tests but didn’t know the details. I’m upfront about what I deal with – this is a public blog – but I wasn’t in the mood to explain at the time. So I took the short answer and said, no, I’m fine.
Another person heard me – someone who knew the long answer – and gave me a strange look.
Right, I guess that’s not accurate.
So I corrected myself. Actually, I am sick. Really sick. But I’m also not, at least, not right now, not that we know of.
That doesn’t make sense, they said.
I smiled. And I felt this wave of, something. I all of a sudden had a wish that this person knew exactly what I was talking about: the paradox of being not okay, but so okay, all at the same time. But as I was short on time – and very sure they wouldn’t understand yet – I left it with, it might not seem to make sense, but it does.
And I realized I’m a much more patient person than I used to be.
That’s not saying much, of course. But the same things that irritated – or even offended – me three years ago, don’t seem so… difficult anymore.
I think sometimes reject patience because we fear that just waiting will prevent us from achieving what we want. And yet if there’s one woman who practiced patience and still accomplished some pretty big things, it’s Margaret Thatcher.
Because patience also means not giving up at the first – or even the thousandth – sign of difficulty.
Born to Conservative Methodist parents in small-town England in 1925, Margaret Roberts was seeped in politics from her earliest years. She learned the business of running a grocery store while discussing social issues with her father, a local Conservative councilor. She studied Chemistry at Somerville College (a division of Oxford University) and was elected president of the student Conservative association at Oxford. In her twenties she ran for the Conservative party in the seat of Dartford twice (1950 and 1951), losing both times but garnering a lot of attention as the youngest woman candidate in the country.
She didn’t let her defeat define her, however.
Not one to try one thing at a time, Ms. Roberts also became Mrs. Denis Thatcher in 1951, gave birth to fraternal twins Mark and Carol in 1953, and began training as a taxation lawyer.
In 1959 she was finally elected Member of Parliament for Finchley, a northern London constituency.
In the next twenty years, Margaret Thatcher would serve in the House of Lords, achieve cabinet rank as Education Minister under the premiership of Edward Heath, overtake Mr. Heath as the Conservative party leader, and become Leader of the Opposition in the British government.
Those twenty years culminated in her election as British prime minister in May 1979.
She was the first – and for many years, the only – woman to lead a major Western democracy.
She was controversial, charismatic, and committed to people and causes. She was level-headed – earning her the title, ‘the Iron Lady’ – clear-thinking, and insanely smart. She refused to think herself at a disadvantage because of her gender.
I’ve got a woman’s ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves.
Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.
I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone to just sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.
Yes, the Iron Lady said all of those things, and a thousand more thought-provoking, smile-inducing things.
Margaret Thatcher modeled security, composure, and patience, and yet achieved things that few women of her time – or ours – have. She was comfortable with others challenging her. She respected those who disagreed with her. She kept pursuing her causes despite personal and professional attack, claiming to cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.
Touche, Mrs. Thatcher.
The Iron Lady inspires me to show this same composure when others differ with me. It happens a lot, of course, because I’m fairly opinionated.
But the great thing about strong, differing opinions, is that iron sharpens iron.
In the past year, I’ve gotten to know someone who seems oh-so-different from me and find that actually, they’re really not so different. What I once thought was one thing, is really another. And I think back to that moment a year ago when I could have done the easy, ‘natural’ thing, but I chose to do the harder.
I’m so glad I chose patience. I’m getting a friend out of it.
I wonder what we all would gain if each of us – myself included – chose patience more often?
Perhaps what stops us being patient with others is that it requires a lot of strength and responsibility. In order not to blame another person for a conflict, we have to own up to what we’ve done wrong. And it’s a very shaky thing to accept responsibility for ugly parts of ourselves, or at least, ugly moments in our history.
Margaret Thatcher sums this up in what I think is one of the most profound political – and personal – statements of the last century:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand, ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ or ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations. (as told to reporter Douglas Keay, Women’s Own Magazine, September 1987).
If we didn’t think ourselves so much entitled but obligated to work hard for what we have, I wonder how things would change? I wonder how patient we’d be?
The trouble is, it takes patience to accept our obligations.
We could practice, I guess.
But no one is masochistic enough to choose that kind of practice. It’s sort of forced on us – through difficulty.
Makes us think about difficulty differently, doesn’t it?
A wise lady (yes, that’s my mother) once told me that maybe if I stopped expecting life to go smoothly, I’d be happier. If I expected it to be hard, the times it’s not would become a pleasant surprise.
Pretty wise indeed.
Because patience is not really a virtue. It’s not something to choose just because its the right thing.
Patience is actually its own reward.
So what if, today, in our difficulties, we paused before reacting with ‘woe is me,’ and thought, ‘patience – and its ensuing happiness – is on its way’?
Well, maybe I’m just looking for a little company in my practice.
Or maybe this really is the better way.
Either way, what have we got to lose?
Go. For. It. Take deep breaths when you want to pull a sucker punch. And know you’re not alone.
I’m counting-to-ten-first with you.