On Technology, Thanksgiving, and Patience

[Originally written in 2007 for a campus publication while I was in medical school; it has remained disquietingly relevant.  It will be posted on the ESN blog tomorrow.]

Black Friday death count as of Thanksgiving 2013.
Black Friday death count as of Thanksgiving 2013.

We have become impatient, unfulfilled, and perpetually fixated on the future. We have filled our lives with so much hardware and noise that it makes us wonder if we too will waste away into a dull obsolescence.

I had never been to a Black Friday shopping spree before. The thought of camping out for hours in the chilling pre-​​dawn night always seemed perverse to me… but that was before I started browsing the Black Friday ads and listening to stories of stunning deals and bargains.

I thought I had conquered technolust a long time ago. In high school I was often caught up in buying the latest gadget or computer upgrade. A fascination with the cutting edge of technology later compelled me to major in electrical engineering, but by the time I graduated from Princeton I had become jaded with technology. The whole industry seemed perverse: laboring over a piece of silicon whose sole function was to glue children to computer screens; developing incredible technologies that were only available to the richest of the rich; seeing this year’s hottest items become next year’s trash. As much as I admired the creative and hard-​​working spirit of modern engineers, I couldn’t bring myself to love the things they made anymore. At least, not enough to buy thousands of dollars worth of stuff.

Until Thanksgiving Day.

My brother and I were perched over a computer monitor, poring through rumored Black Friday discounts. Like a commercial advertisement, images of iPads and DVDs danced in my mind to the background music of self-​​justification. How could it be considered greed to buy a discounted gift for a loved one? Wouldn’t it be perfect to be able to give great gifts for only half the price? Wasn’t that being responsible and economic with my finances: an example of good stewardship? I began constructing an appealing image of the next morning’s escapade: camping out on the sidewalk with a thermos of hot chocolate while listening to medical school lectures and greeting fellow shoppers with holiday cheer. The thought of studying for exams, finishing my Christmas shopping, building character, and dispensing goodwill towards all men (all at the same time) was becoming very attractive.

Then I opened my e-​​mail inbox and read a message from a friend at school. We were taking the same public health class and our professor, Dr. Mark Robson, was featured in the Star Ledger’s front page article. Normally I would have been very happy to see Dr. Robson featured in the newspaper. He is a jovial man who enjoys making fun of his weight, age, and students. He’s the sort of professor I trusted to care about my person as well as my education. Unfortunately, the newspaper article was about Professor Robson’s younger brother, who had died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months prior.

While reading the article, I remembered how stunned the class was to hear the news. Despite the loss, Prof. Robson was back teaching only a week after the death. He briefly told us about the tragedy and did his best to get through the three-​​hour lecture. The first hour was characterized by the same style we had come to enjoy from him: well-​​paced and filled with jokes, theory, and trivia. But the second hour addressed agriculture and farming—elements that surely reminded him of his brother —and his voice suddenly faltered and lost its confidence. He became monotone and listless until the end of class.

A few weeks later, his father passed away as well. The Star Ledger article described it like this:

Then, just before this year’s spring planting, Art [Prof. Robson’s father] began feeling ill. Tests revealed blocked ducts in his liver. Doctors put in a stent and sent him home, a ritual they would repeat right up to the summer day Joan Robson looked out the window to see her husband, weak with fever, being helped in from the fields by Neil [Prof. Robson’s brother]. His cancer was diagnosed after that, but by then it was clear Art wouldn’t see the harvest.

Neil didn’t talk much about it, but everyone knew how hard he was taking the news. He, like all of them, was bracing for the worst– only the worst, when it arrived one evening in late September, was not the thing for which they’d prepared…1

Reading the article about my professor’s family forced me to reflect on the stark contrast between the true holiday of Thanksgiving and the pseudoholiday of Black Friday. I had allowed the latter to corrupt the former. Rather than giving thanks for what I already had, my mind was fixated on the thought of getting more. Impatience had found a way to fuel greed, allowing the joy of today to be spoiled by the promises of tomorrow. While I do not fault technology for these shortcomings, it would be foolish to ignore how technology has made me more vulnerable to them.

One phenomenon of technology is its capacity for instant gratification: the elimination of the gap between desire and fulfillment. Back in the day, if I wanted to make an expensive purchase, I’d have to wait until I had all the cash on hand. Today, I can charge it all to my credit card and delay full payment for months or even years. Back in the day, if I wanted to write something and share it with a wide readership, I would have to find an editor willing to publish my work. I’d have meticulously edited the text so that it could convey its meaning precisely while also making sure that it didn’t unintentionally reveal something private. Today, I can blog and share with millions of people exactly what I had for lunch or what I thought about the classmate who snores in lecture. The delay between a thought and an act has been abolished.

The objectivity, precision, and efficiency that we enjoy from science and technology have obscured our sense of mysticism. It is difficult for us to see the worth of the disciplines of meditation, fasting, and prayer: exercises that require patience and selflessness. In his book “Compassion: A Refection on the Christian Life,” Henri Nouwen grapples with the concept of impatience:

Impatience always has something to do with time. When we are impatient with speakers, we want them to stop speaking or to move on to another subject. When we are impatient with children, we want them to stop crying, asking for ice cream, or running around. When we are impatient with ourselves, we want to change our bad habits, finish a set task, or move ahead faster. Whatever the nature of our impatience, we want to leave the physical or mental state in which we find ourselves and move to another, less uncomfortable place. When we express our impatience, we reveal our desire that things will change as soon as possible… Essentially, impatience is experiencing the moment as empty, useless, meaningless. It is wanting to escape from the here and now as soon as possible…

Clock time is outer time, time that has a hard, merciless objectivity to it. Clock time leads us to wonder how much longer we have to live and whether “real life” has not already passed us by. Clock time makes us disappointed with today and seems to suggest that maybe tomorrow, next week, or next year it will really happen. Clock time keeps saying, “Hurry, hurry, time goes fast, maybe you will miss the real thing! But there is still a chance… Hurry to get married, find a job, visit a country, read a book, get a degree… Try to take it all in before you run out of time.” Clock time always makes us depart. It breeds impatience and prevents any compassionate being together… (Nouwen, 96–98)

Text and instant messaging, blogging, peer-​​to-​​peer networking, Blackberries, Facebook, and a bevy of other novelties have revolutionized the ways in which we can save clock time and communicate efficiently, but they have not given us something meaningful to communicate about. Though we are able to do more, the question becomes, “Are we doing anything worthwhile?” We once perceived the delay between thought and action to be a waste, but perhaps its loss has caused us to lose the meaning behind the things we do. Instead of giving thanks at Thanksgiving, we go out and buy more junk. Instead of rediscovering treasure at Christmastime, we find ourselves in more debt. Instead of composing a letter or crafting an article, we instant message and blog. Instead of finding entertainment and joy in simple diversions, we compulsively check e-​​mail, Facebook, and YouTube. We have lost the dual senses of anticipation and delight in the moment: the waiting, meditating, and “wasting of time” that once made the product of our furious efforts something worthwhile. We have become impatient, unfulfilled, and perpetually fixated on the future. We have filled our lives with so much hardware and noise that it makes us wonder if we too will waste away into a dull obsolescence.

We desperately hope that these things are more efficient ways of building community and yet are often hard pressed to find in them true and full moments of thanksgiving, gratitude, affection, and compassion. Nouwen describes patience as having “hope for the moment” and encourages us to remember those moments in which we have enjoyed the fullness of patience:

Perhaps such moments have been rare in our lives, but they belong among those precious memories that can offer hope and courage during restless and tense periods. These patient moments are moments in which we have a very different experience of time. It is the experience of the moment as full, rich, and pregnant… These moments are not necessarily happy, joyful, or ecstatic. They may be full of sorrow and pain, or marked by agony and struggle. What counts is the experience of fullness, inner importance, and maturation. What counts is the knowledge that in that moment real life touched us. From such moments we do not want to move away; rather, we want to live them to the fullest…

It is this full time, pregnant with new life, that can be found through the discipline of patience. As long as we are the slaves of the clock and the calendar, our time remains empty and nothing really happens. Thus, we miss the moment of grace and salvation. But when patience prevents us from running from the painful moment in the false hope of finding our treasure elsewhere, we can slowly begin to see that the fullness of time is already here and that salvation is already taking place. Then, too, we can discover that in and through Christ all human events can become divine events in which we discover the compassionate presence of God… (Nouwen, 98–100)2

I write this article in the bowels of a medical school study room and must confess that the whole concept of patience seems incredibly difficult. There are times when I just want to leave this place and be done with it all: the late, caffeinated nights; the pressure of exams and the stress to achieve; the quiet and dim study halls that evoke sentiments of frustration and anxiety. I want to move on and be somewhere else and do something different. I want to be out of school; I want to earn a living; I want to serve the poor; I want to have a family; I want to procrastinate; I want everything and to be anywhere and do anything else except the where and the how and the what of the now. But the call of Christ is for me to enter into a divine moment and understand that I have been placed here – in this discrete unit of time – for a purpose. Looking back, I must also admit that there have been times even in this school when I have laughed and enjoyed the company of other students; when I have stared at my notes in amazement at the complexity and intricacy of life; and when I have realized that I am precisely where God wants me to be. The very next moment may bring a phone call or an e-​​mail from a friend that brings with it a conversation of joy or sorrow. The next moment may simply be a continuation of this moment’s reflection. Regardless, I am learning to trust that there is a time for everything and that this moment holds its own special and sacred purpose in the narrative of God’s divine history.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. – Ecclesiastes 3:1–14

  1. “A Harvest of Compassion,” Star Ledger, 23 Nov. 2006: 1. []
  2. Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: a Reflection on the Christian Life (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1982). []

[Note that I have updated some cultural references.]



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