Monday, September 15, 2014

Stand and Wait

When I was younger I counted it one of my small virtues that I was not unhappy to wait. I was patient. I’m thinking particularly of the micro-scale patience that would allow a child or a teenager to wait in line without complaining. To only stand and wait.

For me this practice depended entirely on the ability of my mind to wander. I would begin to feel bored, and then I would by habit exert the necessary cognitive energy to find something interesting about my surroundings, or to elevate my mind into some reverie, or to reflect upon recent events, or whatever. In some ways this still feels like cheating to me, deflecting the real burden of boredom by a secret stimulation. But however that may be, at least the stimulation was only produced of my God-given brain, and oriented toward cultivation of the life of the mind.
In recent years I have more often made use of synthetic patience: smartphone, social media, ebooks, podcasts. This is worse in some significant ways. Sometimes it goes so far as to reverse the scenario such that my wife is forced to wait on me because I am not paying attention. Listening to a podcast is probably the safest in this regard, as it does not divert the eyes. There is also the problem that you often get a worse experience of the thing you are consuming, because you have to chop up your experience of it into little snatches. I read ebooks this way sometimes and I expect that it reduces my comprehension and retention considerably. It’s no good for reading things you really care about. On the other hand, if I don’t have something good that I want to read, I turn to Twitter, or a game, or some other mindless thing. The lack of discrimination is concerning. These things clearly have less value than the silent contemplation that I filled these moments with before I had an iPhone.
On the other hand I tell myself that I get through more books this way. I don’t actually know that, though, because I did not track how quickly I got through books before I had an iPhone, and anyway, my lifestyle has changed since then in other ways. It could be that if I didn’t read books in little bits during the day it would be a higher priority for me when I got home. It could also be that I would read faster if I tipped the balance of my reading back toward books and away from blogs and social media. I don’t know if these counterarguments are true, but they have taught me to be more skeptical.
Another thing I value is time to reflect on what I have read. It takes time to decide whether I agree with an author, or even to know whether I am reading them rightly. It takes time for me to let my imagination inhabit the world of a story, and to figure out the characters and the plot forces and how it all fits together. Sometimes I will finish one book then begin another the same day, just because I have a stack I want to get through, and then I regret it because it pushes the first book out of my mind before I was done chewing on it.
The spaces in life where there is nothing to do are provided for reflection. They are there for you to practice thinking and observing. They are invitations to pray. Filling them up with “content” is like overwatering a plant to the point that it drowns. We need air and emptiness.
Your reward for bearing with me: Milton.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.
His state Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

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