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Don't Let Efficiency Become Your God

It’s Not as Important as You Think

November 9, 2021 by

I was reading a Tony Hillerman book a while ago and was struck by the phrase “glorious inefficiency.” The main actors of the book have discovered a double mystery: a missing person, possibly dead, and a mysterious connection to the ancient beliefs of the Navajo. The protagonists, a professor and a detective, feel so passionate about their quest that time ceases to matter. “Let’s indulge in some glorious inefficiency,” they say, and set about combing the museums and the high desert of New Mexico and interviewing numerous witnesses without watching the clock at all.

This made me think of how modern civilization places too much emphasis on “production per man-hour.” In Latin America millions are out of work, in part because products from “efficient” factory farms are dumped there since the NAFTA agreement. Corn especially, is genetically modified, sprayed to the hilt, and unloaded on their markets. Farms in the United States can grow and harvest corn and soy using masses of machinery and chemicals, but use only a couple employees per thousand acres. Thus you have the small Central American farmers out of work, turning to the drug trade, or coming north to clean our bathrooms – an exodus which is destroying their families – thanks to the quest for efficiency.

Efficiency can be marvelous, especially when a better way is invented for a dangerous job like dismantling land mines, but I think it is way over-emphasized. Our life now suffers from unnatural divisions between work and play, between art and profit, between exercise and production, between worship and vocation.

InefficiencyListing Photo by Danny Burrows.

Children can have just as much fun pretending to work in the sandbox as they do playing games. They are our model for life, in a way, uncomplicated by ideas of what they should or shouldn’t enjoy.

The immigrant pruning grapes in California may hum with joy at the prospect of sending money back to his village in Guatemala, where his family suffers from hunger and need, but he also has joy (if he has a decent employer) in working in the beautiful outdoors, making quality wine, getting healthy exercise, and demonstrating a valuable skill.

Our work can be fun and fulfilling if it is creative, set up to be safe; if it’s educational and the rewards are fairly distributed. Then efficiency is not an issue. Like the protagonists in a Hillerman novel, it is not something we are forced to do, but something we can’t help doing. Someone’s life is in the balance and there is a sense of urgency and the unlocking of mysteries! The immigrant may feel many lives are in the balance – perhaps family members are dying from violence or malnutrition back home – but many of us work without such a vivid and concrete need in our hearts. Then we need to step back, take stock, and refocus our daily lives; are we too concentrated on money? Surely there are people in our neighborhood that need encouragement, a listening ear. Get out into the neighborhood, and see what you see.

I was fascinated to read that Spain is among countries with the highest life expectancy in the world. There are many factors, including perhaps their love of walking. Walking is healthy, but it also leads to encounters with nature and people: yes, the real world.

To be efficient, we drive our dangerous machines to the gym for exercise. That way, we save time “that we really need” to enjoy a movie – which is just someone’s imagined reality, after all – and eat chips on the couch. But adventure awaits you on the road, on the path you neglected to take because you were too busy – not in front of a screen.

I often think that the drive for efficiency is based on the wish for power: “Get the boys off the farm and into the military and the factories that support the military, we have Communists to fight, and radical Islamists, and we have prisons to fill.” Talk about inefficiency! If there’s any inefficiency to worry about, there it is. Millions of people languishing in prisons, not to mention those guarding them.

What about the inefficiency and tragedy of carrying out twenty years of war, killing thirty thousand civilians, spending $3 trillion, all in one country (Afghanistan), and then pulling out to leave the same people in power that were there when we started? Once again, if we need to be concerned about any inefficiency, look at the total waste of war.

So, don’t let “efficiency” become your god. Live your bliss, and let your bliss be saving lives, not necessarily in a hospital, but by creating beauty with the tools at hand, serving with the young or the old, walking instead of driving, to save the planet and your sanity. Take part in that “glorious inefficiency,” play your hunches, live life.

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About the author

Simon Mercer

Simon Mercer

Simon Mercer is a free-thinking Anabaptist, would-be poet who lives at the Maple Ridge Bruderhof.

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