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“It always amazes me how patient you are,” an old friend told me last night. I gaped at her, completely floored by the unexpected compliment.

It’s not that my friend rarely compliments me (although we’re at that stage of friendship where mutual affection is taken so for granted that insults are as loving as kisses, so compliments are totally unnecessary).

No, the surprise was in the particular quality of the compliment. I don’t expect to be complimented on patience any more than Hitler should expect to be complimented on his ethics.

On a self-made list of personal traits, “patience” would only appear under the title: Things I DON’T Have.

When I was a kid living abroad, I had a friend with whom I constantly lost patience. This was especially poor forethought on my behalf, because for the last two years that I lived there, she was my only friend, because the other two moved away.

I just couldn’t help myself.

“Can you sleep over tonight?” she asked once, when we were in grade 5. I told her that I had no idea; I would have to ask my mother, who could be unpredictable.

“What does ‘unpredictable’ mean?” my friend replied, and I waxed eloquent on her ignorance of what I perceived to be a basic word.

Another time she asked me “what is 11 X 2?”

And I spent five minutes trying to make her work out one of the simplest mathematical problems after 1 X 2, because I believed that a 12 year old should be capable of doing it.

“I don’t remember, Carol, why can’t you just tell me?” she would say with an injured expression every time I tried to force her to think for herself, and then found her wanting.

It was a good question.

Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I deliver a simple answer with good grace, rather than point out to my friend exactly how stupid I thought she was being?

I didn’t know. All I knew was that if I didn’t learn to control my irritation, I would lose an otherwise excellent friend.

So for New Years, I wrote down my number one resolution: BE NICE TO MY ONLY FRIEND!

I hung it on my bedroom door, where I saw it every day. Over time I began to learn to swallow some of the smart-ass responses, and turn a snappish answer into a kinder one.

When I moved back to Canada, though, I still had a long way to go.

In the international school I was accustomed to recieving letter grades. In Canada, though, tests and quizzes were graded as fractions. 10/15, 23/30. I didn’t know what any of this meant. I had always had difficulty with fractions.

Then one of my new friends announced her grade as a percentage. I asked her how she knew. She explained that all you had to do was divide the top number by the bottom number on your calculator, and multiply by 100. Thus 8/10 = 0.80 = 80%.

So when, a year later, we learned fractions again (my Canadian school was rather behind my old international school), you can imagine my frustration when the exact same friend turned around and said, “I don’t understand. How do I turn a fraction into a percentage?”

“It’s just like you do with a test,” I reminded her. “If you got a 5/7 on a test, what would you do?”

“I dunno,” said the girl.

Could I accept this with good grace, and explain it to her as she had explained it to me? Nooooooo.

I spent ten minutes irritably trying to get her to think for herself. I knew she knew it, and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t apply her knowledge to new situations as easily as I could.

Meanwhile she got more and more frustrated and upset, protesting, “I don’t know, Carol.”

Only once I had thoroughly humiliated the poor girl did I finally condescend to explain it to her.

She received her lecture with a bowed head and I knew that I was doing it again.

This impatience with perceived stupidity has been one of my greatest faults, and I still strive to restrain myself. Snarky comments and irritable responses still bubble to the surface, although it’s rare for me to express them now. Perhaps this is why a verbally abusive dog training blog appeals to me – I can say the things I normally NEVER say any more.

Yet here was a friend who knew me of old, admiring my patience. 

If this were a more recent acquaintance, I would have laughed in her face, much as I did to a new friend who called me “laid-back” (which, by the way, happened again on the plane – I’m glad I hide my anxiety well).

But this friend knows me. She even correctly identified my tree drawing.

Smart and always good at school, she rarely received my ‘boy-you’re-stupid” snark, but she often found herself in the position of defending some of our other friends, and explaining what I would not.

I pointed all of this out to her. She pondered it for a moment.

“Maybe there are different kinds of patience,” she said. “All I know is, when I see the patience you bring to training a dog… I wouldn’t have that patience. And the patience you have with Babby when he’s crying or being difficult is the same.”

This may totally redefine my self concept.

What compliments have you received that blew you out of the water?