Efficiency or Mediocrity?

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The American city is built on efficiency. Roads weave and connect, and gas stations populate major street corners. Fast food restaurant chains pepper the highways so that drivers can eat as soon as they are hungry. Mountains are leveled and rivers are redirected so that the greatest number can fit in the smallest area. Buildings are formed using simple materials, meant to get the job done without too much effort.

Efficiency is prominent in the Church, too. Often, daily Masses are kept brief to accommodate the modern worker’s busy schedule. Purification of vessels is done outside of the Mass to save time. Eucharistic Prayer II is chosen for its brevity. Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are multiplied to speed up distribution. Priests sometimes opt for the shorter version of the readings, seeing no point in taking extra time. Laity are concerned about getting to the next appointment, and clergy need time to breathe. Why not skip the periods of silence between readings?

Even romance has become efficient. For many, sharing emotions is not always worth the effort. Dating has become less and less common, with many opting for one-night stands. Many of these quick encounters are between strangers, taking place through apps like Tinder. Instead of building from friendship, teens and adults go straight to sexual intimacy. Long-term commitment is sidelined for quick flings. Why take the time to solemnize your commitment when you can cohabitate without the ceremony? Without long-term effort, the whole process is made efficient.

But in each of these spheres, something is lost. Driving through the urban landscape, participating in a shortened Mass, and treating romance flippantly raise troubling questions. Where is the grass in the modern city? Where are the trees? Is it necessary to have residential areas so compartmentalized and crowded? Why do the churches look like meeting halls? Leaving Mass, the congregation is thankful to be out in twenty minutes, but did they give God what He deserves? No one is burdened, but is anyone challenged? Relationships are certainly simple now, but are they really stress-free? Is callousness the best way to go about things?

 

In the effort to achieve efficiency, America, at least in its larger cities, has lost beauty. Fast food is prepared with haste, not care. Nature has been so replaced by roadways that what is left is either sparse or artificial. It would be one thing for nature to be replaced by beautiful buildings and churches, but, as it stands, we encounter flashing lights, aggressive advertising, and uninspiring homes. These get the job done, but they are not beautiful. It seems American efficiency has no room for the beautiful.

In the modified liturgy, the same effort sacrifices truth. Our Lord and His commands are not the priority; the focus is on the people and their preferences. The goal is not to give everything to God, but to see how little we can give without falling short of what is required. This attitude is disingenuous. Serving God without the proper diligence treats Him as a lower being, offending against truth. We pay respect when we should be giving worship, and God does not receive the time and effort He deserves.

In romance, goodness is sidelined. Pleasure is sought without regard for the other person. Physical union is aimed at without spiritual or emotional union. Standards plummet, and callousness is par for the course. At this point, many teens expect to be discarded and so decide to abuse before they can be abused. In an attempt to have the fruits of love without the effort, it has become a race to see who can get the most and risk the least. How it might impact the other person is not so important.

Of course, not all American cities, liturgies, and romantic relationships have problems this serious. There are many cities which manage to be both efficient and beautiful, as there are many liturgies which are timely yet reverent. Even in romance, we can find many examples of couples striving for goodness. Still, the issues are common enough that we can see a pattern. In each of these situations, one of the transcendentals is buried in the rush toward efficiency. Paradoxically, when efficiency is prized at the expense of these, it loses its effectiveness. But how can the transcendentals, so abstract, preserve efficiency?

Take beauty. When beauty leaves, wonder follows. No one ponders the intricacies of their commute to work, or stands in awe of Wendy’s. It is difficult to contemplate the intricate beauty of a stark, square building, but a starry night is fertile ground for wonder. Wonder stirs up inspiration. The experience of being moved by a beautiful person, landscape, or piece of music is palpable. It sets the heart ablaze, and that fire ignites action.

Not all action is motivated by wonder, but the actions which spring from it have greater passion. Without this passion, our actions can become anemic. We can work to get the job done, but once our work is complete what more is there to do? There is no deeper inspiration beyond the useful. This is wildly different from the sort of inspiration demanded by love. Called forward by the beauty of the beloved, the lover acts with an intensity absent in the average person. An efficiency that ignores beauty fails to encourage the most effective kind of motivation. Instead of eager action, ugly environments encourage anemic action or even lethargy. The lethargic are not efficient.

When truth is ignored, stability goes next. Truth is always in accordance with reality. Phrased differently, living in falsehood is the same thing as being out of touch with reality. We fail to understand the world aright. Soon, we forget who we are and what we are meant to do. This is shaky territory, and it can only get us so far until we spiral off course. Eventually, we experience the dissonance between our perception and the real world, and we begin to lose confidence. Without confidence, it is easy to lose our peace. In its place comes anxiety ranging from the mundane to the existential. Remove truth, and anxiety fills the vacuum. While it may cause us to move at a frantic pace, anxiety is certainly not efficient.

When goodness is displaced, virtue goes with it. If we do not need to be good, wickedness becomes an option. Suddenly, we can use any means at our disposal to get what we want, even treating persons as means. This is often easier, at least in the short term. Without higher standards, utilitarianism becomes enticing. No longer grounded by virtue or sacrifice, we aim to get the greatest pleasure with the least effort.

But in the romantic sphere, minimal effort means minimal growth. The best-case scenario becomes a string of uncommitted relationships, with no substantial progression. We never reach unity. We can reach a fairly high ceiling, but we will find that the top is not quite as exciting as we had thought. An existence spent without regard for commitment, goodness, or sacrifice is a lonely one. In search of cheap pleasure, we end up with mediocrity. Once again, what began as efficiency ends in failure.

In the end, the abstract safeguards the practical. The transcendentals make true inspiration, peace, and joy possible. Beauty animates, truth reassures, and goodness beatifies. Without these, efficiency is inefficient. Crowded cities, rushed liturgies, and cheap romance look efficient at first glance. But without truth, beauty, or goodness, none of these things can transcend the bonds of earth. They remain mediocre, unable to progress beyond a certain point. Until it respects the transcendent, a rabid efficiency fails to help man achieve that which is truly worthy of him. He cannot find peace, inspiration, and love. If we want these, we need the transcendentals. Otherwise, we may waste less time, but we risk anxiety, lethargy, and mediocrity, none of which is terribly efficient.

Photo credit: Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB/Shutterstock.com

 

David Dashiell

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David Dashiell lives in the Pittsburgh area with his wife and daughter. He is the associate director of liturgy for a group of four churches. Originally from Maryland, he earned his Master of Arts in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

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