The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why wait?

There was a news item that I recently ran across about Amazon’s experimentation with drones for product delivery. Yes, drones – the same unmanned aerial vehicles employed to assassinate suspected terrorists and conduct remote-controlled surveillance of foes (and maybe a few questionable friends).

Researching a little further, I discovered that a German delivery service is hoping to use drones to reach isolated regions with such essentials as medical supplies – which certainly seems reasonable enough. However, it also is becoming quite clear that many commercial firms in the United States and abroad are looking at ways to utilize drone technology in an effort to move more goods faster from manufacturer to warehouse to consumer—this before necessary regulations are in place. As the Washington Post reports: 
Cargo companies are waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to finish drafting a set of guidelines for integrating commercial drones into the nation’s airspace, a process that isn't expected to wrap for several years. But that isn’t keeping companies from making as many preparations as they can.
Meanwhile, an editorial in USA Today advises:  
The drones aren’t just coming, they’re here. If authorities want to avoid the aerial equivalent of the Wild West, they would do well to move their rule-making along.
Before this turns into a rant against the civilian use of drones (leaving aside the ethical questions regarding military/espionage applications), I acknowledge that there are likely legitimate uses for the vehicles – such as those that would aid law enforcement and health and safety agencies. Beyond that, however, widespread commercial use of drones obviously presents numerous logistical challenges (not to mention concerns over safety and privacy). An excerpt from a Wikipedia entry paints a rather frightening picture:  
A congressional mandate to integrate [drones] into U.S. airspace protocols is forecast to grant FAA licenses more broadly as early as 2015, the agency expecting that five years after it unveils a regulatory framework for [drones] weighing 55 pounds or less, there will be 7,500 such devices in the air.
Imagine that! Amazon’s proposal involves being able to deliver a product from one of its “fulfillment centers” within 30 minutes of its being ordered online. The drone would then fly to the customer’s preferred delivery location and drop the product safely (?) to the ground to be retrieved by the eager consumer.

All this leads me to ask two questions. First, do we really want the air above us perpetually teeming with low-flying, commercial drones (not just Amazon’s, but likely those from UPS and countless other companies as well) zooming about, dropping packages (even pizzas!) all over the place? The sources cited above indicate that this scenario is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps it is. Second, and most importantly, why do we want this? Simply because we can have more stuff faster? Modern-day delivery is already pretty quick – a day, two days, three, maybe a week. Not so long ago, the standard was six to 10 weeks—now considered an eternity.

Lament over our increasingly consumer-driven society is well-documented by now. Everything, it seems, revolves around how many goods can be produced and how many can be sold. This has been going on for decades now. However, this mindset fuels not only economies and job markets, but also is progressively affecting us individually as persons on many levels—self-worth, what we consider as needs, and how we perceive daily circumstances and the people around us. And this says nothing of that “unseen” multitude exploited in the process of manufacturing more and more of what we can never get enough of. Productivity is winning out over personhood.

These days, not only do we want more, we want it now. We hate to wait—not just for products, but for anything. Our perceived needs must be fulfilled instantaneously. We get frustrated if they aren’t, and even if they are, another perceived need soon supplants our illusive satisfaction.

Where does all this end? I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about these things lately, and it seems like utter madness when it’s spelled out like this, doesn’t it? Yet, in the course of our day-to-day circumstances, it’s difficult to realize and acknowledge that it's even occurring. Therefore, I do not exonerate myself.

It seems to me as though our flawed human nature dwells too much in the future rather than in the present. We anticipate not from where we are or what we have, but from where we think we should be or from what we think we should have. As a result, we are anxious people who find it difficult to be truly present to this moment, this circumstance, this person in front of us. We are always somewhere up ahead—looking for that package to be dropped from the sky above us.

The Advent season is the perfect antithesis to all this—and even it is becoming increasingly ignored in today’s world. Advent is meant as a respite—an opportunity to re-orient ourselves to what is true and ponder those things in our heart. It is a time to slow down and appreciate the journey, to wait with eager—rather than anxious—expectation. Advent invites us to be still and know that God is God, and we are not, and that only God can provide what we truly need.

Advent is a time to truly live within a present moment that still recalls what is past and longs for what is to come. Advent reminds us that God breaks into human history, this moment, to restore our human dignity as persons. If we allow it (difficult, I know), Advent can help us to re-assess and re-order our priorities according to the things that are above. It can show us how to give birth to eternal realities in a way that looks beyond our own perceived needs, providing hope for a dark and lonely world largely living within its own self-enclosed future of ever-increasing and unsatisfied desires.

Where we already are and what we already have has great meaning, and if we examine it closely and embrace it fully, we discover that the eager expectation of what is to come has enormous implications for us right now. In other words, there is meaning in the waiting. This is the title of the Advent book we are listening to these days in the monastery refectory each evening: The Meaning Is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent, by Paula Gooder. It is a wonderful meditation for this season, and offers a revealing glimpse of what it is we’re waiting for and why. An excerpt from the book’s introduction:
Waiting is not something most of us do easily. Our frustrations at waiting begin at an early age and are hard to outgrow.

Antipathy to waiting is exacerbated, if not encouraged, by the world in which we live. All around us we encounter, day after day, the encouragement not to wait but to have want we want now. Our credit-driven society urges us to abandon all thought of waiting and to buy now; so many adverts have as their underlying message “why wait?” Improvements in communication only erode the notion of waiting further: we are told that people feel aggrieved if they have to wait for more than 24 hours to receive a reply from an e-mail and mobile phones help us to be available even when we are out. Waiting is, increasingly, a strange notion. We have become accustomed to immediacy and swift action.

A re-invigorated and renewed vision of Advent lies in waiting; a waiting that rests not in frustration but in stillness; not in frenzied anticipation but in an embracing of the present. If we want to appreciate Advent fully we need to re-learn how to wait, to rediscover the art of savoring the future, of staying in the present and of finding meaning in the act of waiting.

The loss of an ability to wait often brings with it the inability to be fully and joyfully present now. Instead, we are constantly looking backwards to better times we used to know and forwards to better times that may be coming. The more we do this, the more we miss the present. Not only that, but it becomes hard to appreciate the future moment even when it does come. Many people speak of the feeling of deep anti-climax on Christmas Day when that long-anticipated day does not live up to expectations. Often the reason for this is that we live forever in the future so that, when the future becomes the present, we are ill-equipped to deal with it and have lost the ability to be fully present, right now.

One of the many reasons why we wait in Advent is so that we hone our skills of being joyfully and fully present now. After a month of doing this, Christmas Day can gain a depth and meaning that would otherwise fly past in a whirl of presents.

Such deep attention to the present cannot help but transform us as we learn – or relearn as the case may be – how to live deeply and truly in the present moment so that we are content to linger in our lives as they are now and not be forever looking forwards, striving onwards to the next goal.

The paradox is that sometimes the fulfillment of that for which we wait robs us of what we were waiting for and that we discover to our surprise that the meaning is in the waiting and not in the fulfillment.

Entering the biblical world view, which focuses on the future culmination in glory of all our present suffering and woe, changes the present because it invites us to strive to make real in the present a little of that glorious future held open for us through the past death and resurrection of Jesus. The concept is mind-blowing, and we will almost certainly fail to grasp it in all its fullness in this life, but grappling with it is, in my view, part of what Advent invites us to do.

Advent calls us into a state of active waiting: a state that recognizes and embraces the glimmers of God’s presence in the world, that recalls and celebrates God’s historic yet ever-present actions and that speaks the truth about the almost-but-not-quite nature of our Christian living, which yearns for but cannot quite achieve divine perfection. Most of all, Advent summons us to the present moment, to a still yet active, a tranquil yet steadfast commitment to the life we live now. It is this to which Advent beckons us, and without it our Christian journey is impoverished.
This Advent, let us wait together each moment for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever (cf. Hebrews 13:8). Let us find meaning in the waiting, giving birth to Christ in the present moment. We’re worth it.

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