Learning to wait in an efficient world

Earlier today, I had a few minutes free so I decided to run out to make a deposit at my bank, which is located across town. Twenty minutes later, on the way home, I realized I might have made a mistake with the deposit slip. I was at a long traffic light so I whipped out my smartphone and checked to make sure it went through properly. Sigh of relief. Then I wondered if I’d gotten any new emails, so I checked, because why not?

It’s become a commonplace to observe that technology has practically removed time and space from our calculations. You can be there and have that, right now. You want to be in Virginia by lunchtime? Sure, hop in the car. You want to be in Tokyo by tomorrow? Sure, hop on the airplane; you can save time by buying the tickets with your phone on the way to the airport. We live in the age of instant gratification, when, if you feel a sudden hankering to watch SportsCenter and you don’t happen to be near the television in your living room or the television in your bedroom or the television in your kitchen, you can just whip out your iPhone to enjoy live streaming straight to the palm of your hand. Amazon Prime rakes in millions of dollars by getting Season 4 of Downton Abbey to you three days sooner. We have learned to expect everything to be here and ready with an urgency that rivals a nicotine addict reaching for his next cigarette.

Now, it’s true that all that speed and convenience aren’t necessarily bad. Time is limited, and tools that help us invest it well can be a good thing. But it’s worth considering how living with our own, personal technological genie in a bottle affects us. Among other things, it has made simply waiting feel strange and almost wrong. One of the great lessons of Scripture is to wait on the Lord; and waiting on Him is a lot harder when He’s just about the only thing left that expects us to.

Our character is built through practice. What we do becomes more natural and easier, whether for good or ill. What we don’t do is harder and feels less natural. And one thing that you and I have done far less than almost any other generation is to just wait; wait for the letter, or the visit, or the harvest, or the dawn. Is it unreasonable to think this is part of the reason why we are so impatient with prayers that are not immediately answered, so shaken by theological difficulties which cannot be resolved by the top three search results, so crushed by persistent trials, so impatient with the slow and messy process of fellowship, so disinclined to digest meaningful theological teaching?

The struggle of waiting on God is not something our generation was the first to discover, and patience has never been easy. But I do not think I am the only one who often finds myself going through life with an impatience that just does not seem to have been as prominent among those who grew up before microwaves, text messages, and interstate highways.

The challenge, of course, is that we do live among microwaves, text messages, and interstate highways, and these things, like everything else about our environment, are going to affect us. The answer is not to be Amish, but to be aware.

If you are a parent, it is worth considering what hobbies or interests might naturally cultivate patience and a willingness to wait in your children. When I was a teenager, working on a farm and teaching myself computer programming helped teach lessons of patience that still benefit me today. There’s nothing like clearing the one-thousand-millionth rock out of a field, or debugging code for hours to find an errant semicolon, to remind one that life moves at its own pace whether you like it or not.

Additionally, in a culture in which “helicopter parent” has almost become a badge of honor, it’s worth asking when it might be better to curb the parental instinct to instantaneously provide, solve,  and fix, allowing some of the natural challenges of life to teach our children to wait well.

As adults, the desire to cultivate patience offers one more reason to pull back and unplug from some of our fast-paced conveniences. Slowing down and submitting ourselves more to the passage of time aren’t the only good reasons to choose a home-cooked meal instead of a TV dinner, a phone call or letter instead of a text message, or pickup basketball at the park instead of video gaming, but they are certainly an added benefit. Of course, saving time has real value, and it would be foolish to discard every convenience, but cultivating a spirit that knows how to wait has value as well. Bearing in mind what can be lost in a relentless pursuit of efficiency can help us balance the conflicting values wisely.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do, though, is simply to remember that our false expectations are false. Our bubble of instant-everything is nothing but a superficial layer of convenience on a universe that doesn’t and isn’t supposed to immediately cater to our every need; and that’s okay. We have a Father who knows what we need before we ask, and true contentment comes not from saving seconds but from learning the attitude of the Psalmist who wrote, “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him.”

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