Sign seen in a repair shop:
Speed, Quality, Price. Choose Any Two.
Last week I went to a bike shop and asked to have a flat tire repaired. I also wanted some other things tuned up on the bicycle. The proprietor told me that I could have the flat repaired in 5 minutes, but if I wanted the other work done I'd have to come back tomorrow. I didn't really need the bike today. Heck, I could have waited until April. But for some reason I told the man that I'd wait for the quick repair and come back for the rest of the work some other time.
As I drove away I began to reflect on my decision. Why had I gone for the quick fix that didn't quite meet my needs instead of waiting for a more complete repair that would have required more of my time?
The sign quoted above has always struck me as one of the most concise statements of a philosophical reality. We can have it fast and good, but it won't be cheap. We can have it good and cheap, but it won't be fast. We can have it cheap and fast, but it won't be good. Being human, of course, we want all three. But increasingly we seem, when given the choice, to opt for only for decisions where speed will be the result. That means we give up either quality or price as values. I got my bike back quickly, and the cost was minimal. But the machine itself is still not quite in top condition.
It is perhaps a commonplace to observe that we seem to be living in a culture that values speed over almost all other considerations. Even as our labor-saving devices multiply and the basic tasks of life take decreasing percentages of our days, we are becoming increasingly impatient and unwilling to let processes take the time they need to work themselves out. Part of our increasing prurience for speed must result from our growing dependence on the stimulation we get from the instant responses of computer screens and hand-held devices. Speed (hurry, not amphetamines!), like alcohol, tobacco, or opium, is habit-forming. We are all on the way to being speed addicts, if we aren't already.
This is not just a social problem. It is also a spiritual one. Time and its unfolding are central to the Christian understanding of how we discern what God is up to. As a historical people, Christians look back to the whole salvation history, beginning with the Exodus, continuing with the prophets, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As a faithful people, we look forward to the fulfillment of God's promises and the completion of God's purposes. Life makes sense in our tradition only over time. We can't quite see what a given event means in the actual moment. We only see the significance as the larger pattern emerges as time passes.
More than I want things good or cheap, I want them fast. I had an English teacher colleague who used to say that reading is a moral act. What she meant was that to read a book, the reader has to learn to accept the pleasure of delayed gratification. Waiting for a story to work itself out over 400 pages is often a hard task for a child used to half-hour episodes of a sitcom. But one of the things teachers do is lead children into the kind of maturity that can live with things unresolved until they're fully finished.
If you're like me, then being the kind of person who has to relearn patience is similar to being a student learning the pleasures of reading after a lifetime of television, video games, text messages. All of us have become so dependent upon instant results that we have lost the ability to wait for the outcome most fitting to all of the considerations inherent in the situation. By moving peremptorily to get done and move on to the next irresistible stimulus we fail to honor each other, ourselves, and the God who we believe is at work in the world over time.
As we get ready to observe Lent, let's remember that one etymology for the season's name derives from the Latin lentus, or slow. Working out God's purposes from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day takes 40 days. There's no way to short-circuit the process. Lent will take the time it takes. In that respect, it's an epitome of the way God works in all things. This Lent, let's learn to take things slowly, to let go of our need for instant responses. Of course in order to do that we'll have to give up the illusion that we're in control. But that, dear readers, is a topic for another message.