Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2012, Karissa Knox Sorrell reflects on cultural definitions of efficiency and inefficiency.
My Southern grandmother taught me that you shouldn’t be idle for a moment. When she was raising her kids, she was busy from the second she opened her eyes in the morning to the moment she laid her head on the pillow at night. Busyness was holiness to her. “When my babies napped, I ran like mad to get everything done before William got home,” she told me when I was a new mother. I didn’t dare tell her that when my baby napped, I napped, too.
I learned inefficiency from my friends in Thailand. Growing up there as the daughter of missionaries, I found that the Thai idea of time was fluid; arriving late was the norm. Everything moved slowly there: traffic, people, animals, time. If you arrived anywhere early, you could expect to be waiting around for a long while. My family struggled with impatience, given our American penchant for being on time.
We began to see that the slow pace of Thailand was tied to their communal culture. Three generations often lived together in one house. It was unheard of for young people to live alone; everyone had roommates. You rarely even saw someone walking down the street alone. Thais moved in pairs and groups. They made decisions based on the good of the group, not the individual. I went to church with university students who had left their family behind to come to the city alone. They had to find a family away from home; many of them found one in our youth and college group. As a youth group we didn’t go out and do a bunch of activities as much as we just sat around, talking and wasting away Sunday afternoons. But that was when friendships were made. It was when I really learned Thai. It was when I fell in love with the people.
I learned efficiency from my ESL students. When I was teaching ESL at a high school, I had four students from the same family. The Rodriguez family had seven kids in all, stair steps. The oldest five had emigrated from Mexico with their parents when they were young; the youngest two had been born in the States.
The oldest child, Yoselin, had a baby in October during her senior year. She kept up with her work via a homebound teacher for a couple of months, and she returned the week before exams in December. On exam week, she did not show up for two of her exams, thus failing both classes. In January, when she did not come back to school, I asked her sister, Blanca, why Yoselin quit when she was so close, and she shrugged her shoulders. “She’s taking care of her baby,” she said.
In my mind, that wasn’t the efficient thing to do. I knew Yoselin didn’t really plan on going to college, but that she could at least get a better job with a high school diploma. Even so, Blanca helped me realize that Yoselin was doing something far more important than getting a diploma; she was being a mother. My educated, middle-class ideas of efficiency were being challenged.
Senora Rodriguez, a pretty-but-tired-looking woman, worked two jobs on paper. One was a second-shift job as a janitor at a middle school. She also had a second-shift job as a cook at a Mexican restaurant. So Blanca, a junior at the time, worked her mom’s janitor job. Every day after school she got off the bus at the middle school and proceeded to sweep, mop, and scrub pee-stained toilets until ten o’clock.
This left Emelin, the freshman, to look after her three younger siblings all night. Though their dad and their brother Ramiro (a sophomore) were usually home in the evenings, Emelin was the one who cooked supper, cleaned, and helped the little ones with their homework.
To the Rodriguez family, efficiency was working together to make sure everybody was fed and safe. Homework and good grades weren’t as important as helping the family out. The girls never complained; in fact, they were happy and enjoyable.
Then there was Maribel, whose family had dreamed of coming to America, living in a big house, and making a good life for themselves. Those dreams were dashed when her father died shortly after the family arrived. In eighth grade, Maribel lied about her age and got a second shift job at a factory to help her mom make enough money to support her three younger siblings. Her ESL teacher finally found out and made Maribel quit, but once in high school, she asked me almost daily to help her find a job. I recognized Maribel’s quick mind and strong work ethic; I thought she should focus on her schoolwork rather than worrying about a job. “I just want my brothers to have Christmas gifts for once,” she told me.
In that moment I knew that while, yes, it was important for me to teach these kids English, what they really needed from me was a relationship. They needed acceptance, kindness, and advice. They needed a safe haven from all the forces that pushed against them. I learned that what really mattered was when I came to their soccer games, or listened when they talked about their problems, or showed up at the hospital when they had babies.
That’s the thing about efficiency; it misses the human sometimes. And when the human element is missing, I don’t think it can be holy. God came to us in human form, through a woman. The bread and wine I take on Sundays is made by human hands (sometimes mine) before it gets blessed and becomes Eucharist. Holiness is found in our ongoing dance between human and divine.
My grandmother has mellowed a little now. She can’t move as fast as she used to. When the family gathers at her house, the day is sunlit and endless. The children squeal from the tire swing. My cousins and I sit in lawn chairs on the porch swapping parenting stories and reminiscing about summers at Grandma’s house. My son runs down the hill and jumps into my father’s lap, laughing. The aunts and uncles sip coffee and complain about getting old. Somebody tells a story about Granny Agee, my grandmother’s mother. Somebody goes inside to get a second helping of dessert. Then there’s Grandma, who sits holding the youngest great-grandchild, looking out over her family in the day’s waning light. I know what she’s thinking: This is holiness.