Somewhere I read that when asked about the greatest evil in the world, Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer and Trappist monk, after some thought replied: “efficiency”. While I don’t know for certain whether this story is true or even whether I would totally agree with Fr. Merton, it did get me thinking.
Clearly doing things without too much waste is a good idea. It has helped drive many improvements in our day to day lives plus it’s respectful of the gifts bestowed on us. And as an impatient, over caffeinated male with a strong tendency to be self-centered, I rail at things that I perceive as being inefficient or that impede me from achieving my objectives, no matter how mundane they might be. But back to Merton’s point, there also can be insidious aspects to efficiency that might not be obvious at first glance.
Efficiency like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
We are all familiar with calling some company, service or government office only to be greeted with 1-2 minutes of unhelpful information, that often culminates in telling us to go to their website. (Cold comfort for the almost 30 million US households with no internet access.) Recently I couldn’t help but smile when I called a parish (not Saints Peter and Paul), and was greeted with a review of their Covid rules before I could speak with a person.
I suspect the people who create these automated messages may do so with reasonably good intentions, but they have the effect of impeding us from connecting with our brothers or sisters. Not to mention consuming time and often putting us in a grumpy mood for when we do finally get through to someone. Incidentally, given the average lifespan consists of about 40 million minutes, one wonders how many precious minutes are consumed listening to irrelevant information or to scratchy music while on hold.
Moreover, as we struggle to wade through these various automated (efficient?) systems, it can be easy to feel that we are out of control and being processed by faceless machines.
And a temptation to lose sight of our higher calling.
As christians Jesus tells us that above all, we are commanded to love God and our neighbor. Note Jesus didn’t suggest it, encourage it or tell us to love only when convenient, or when we feel like it, He commanded it. So while automation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can over-separate us from our fellow “man”, and remove opportunities for us to be the face of God’s love. Also, given that God often speaks to us through the people we encounter, too much diminishment of human contact deprives us of an easy way to encounter God in our own lives. So how do we do navigate our way on a daily basis?
St. Paul tells us that we should “pray always”. Now I don’t think that he meant we should be constantly on our knees gazing heavenwards, but more so that we always keep in mind who we are (children of God); why we’re here (to do God’s will and thereby grow closer to Him); And of course to be, as much as possible, present in the moment, to be open to God’s voice.
So while we are being subjected to these tedious voice response systems, unhelpful information and interminable hold times, perhaps rather than scrolling through our Instagram account, or looking at last nights sports scores (nothing wrong with either by the way), we could try and calm our minds, listen to our breathing, and perhaps have some simple prayers in mind that we can say.
Maybe we could pray that we will be more loving, gentle and respectful; that we will be kind to the person who eventually takes our call. And of course there are certainly no shortage of topics for our prayers such as those many people in need around us or the wars in Ukraine, Myanmar and Tigray.
No matter how we choose to repurpose the time we spend those countless minutes waiting, you can be assured that it will be a truly efficient use of that time, at least as defined by Jesus.