I taught math for a living for several years. I still feel bad for my former students sometimes… But, like many, I couldn’t help but see the disparity between my Korean students and my American students. The Korean students were almost inevitably in the top of my class. I certainly had some smart American students, but I was hard pressed to find a Korean student that, at least in math, didn’t look like they knew what they were doing.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that Asian students of almost all countries best American students in math because of… wait for it… rice farming.
Rice farming is an exacting task that happens year-round. More than any other kind of agriculture, the more effort you put into it, the more crop you get out of it, and there’s no almost time for breaks. This work ethic and philosophy of effort has seeped into Asian cultures, he argues. Asian students do better in math because they put more time and effort in. Period.
Part of putting that effort in, he suggests somewhat indirectly, is dealing with setbacks. It’s a matter of frustration-tolerance. When American students don’t understand something, the inclination is to fairly quickly say, “I don’t get it,” and quit or get help. For Asian students, the inclination is to put more effort in to get something out of it – to keep trying. Their ability to tolerate confusion and frustration is higher because of their cultural values.
Now, math and spirituality aren’t usually the most conversant topics. It’s not often you get principles in spiritual growth applying to mathematics and vice-versa, but this is one of those weird exceptions, I think. In spiritual development, you’re bound to face frustration. The world is filled with evil, and unfortunately so are our hearts. That sin and evil will rise up at times or we’ll uncover it and have to face it, and our frustration tolerance is tested in such moments. Frustration may even be the mildest way of putting it sometimes.
How long are we willing to endure the seeming inaction of God in us or in the world around us? As He let Job suffer for many weeks with saying nothing, sometimes we are left in periods of confusion and frustration or pain. Sometimes it is appropriate to distract ourselves from our guilt or shame or the suffering we see, but other times, we must attend to it, just as my Korean students attended to the algebra I set in front of them. As we are present to the things we do not like, rather than giving up on them or pushing them aside, we may find that we receive something from them. In attending to our guilt instead of hiding from it, we may find forgiveness. In being present to the suffering we see, we may find compassion or wisdom in ourselves or others.
Now, granted, not all things should be simply endured. But how strong is the urge to simply throw up our hands and quit or run away from the things we do not want? Can we tolerate the bad, trusting that through this path, God may provide a path to the good?
In what ways might your frustration tolerance be low? What feelings do you quickly, maybe not even intentionally, try to get away from? And could God be inviting you to join him in those feelings?