“The Inefficiency of Efficiency” | Why R.S. Thomas Will Be Remembered

rstSeveral Sundays ago, I listened to a well-known American bishop speak, then answer questions. One questioner asked him how he got so much done.

After breakfast, he runs four miles on his treadmill, little thingies sticking in his ears so he can listen to a book. No outdoors distractions, such as trees, bluejays, clouds, chipmunks, flowers, humans.

Then he goes to his study and devotes two hours to writing on his computer. When he drives, he listens to a book; cooking dinner for himself and his wife, listens to a book. No time wasted.

Efficient.

He has written more than twenty books, in which he brings the academic work of progressive biblical scholars and theologians down to a more readable and understandable level.

R. S. Thomas, after breakfast, went to his study, picked up a book, and began to read. When a poem darted into his mind, he put down his book, looked for pen and paper, and wrote down a first line and waited to see how the sounds and rhythms of that line would shape the rest of the poem.

In the afternoon, he walked the moors, no thingies stuffed into his ears. He enjoyed being distracted by gorse in bloom, sun glimmering on a lake, a farmer “docking mangels,” sheep looking like walking stones on a distant hillside.

After supper, Thomas visited parishioners. If he drove, he didn’t listen to a book; walked, he didn’t listen to a book. Wasted time.

Inefficient.

But my hunch is that Thomas’s poems will be read, remembered, and loved long after the bishop’s books are a footnote in the history of religion in America.

“The inefficiency of efficiency” – words from a book I’m reading the old-fashioned way. Seated in a chair. Not multi-tasking. Just reading God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet, a doctor-model for all doctors.

Dr. Sweet is on the medical staff of San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, “the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu” – the hotels of God that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages.

Laguna Honda’s staff had been caring for women and men with skill and love for decades, when in trooped the efficiency police and declared that the love part of the formula was inefficient.

Before the efficiency police arrived, Christmas Day morning overflowed with fun. There was a big package and a small package for each women and each man. When they opened them, the fun began – the swapping of cardigans and watches. All morning there was a handing back and forth until every patient had the desired size and color of cardigan, a silver or gold watch. The staff shared in the hilarity. Yes, meds were sometimes missed. But several Christmas hours rippled with communal excitement, with a sharing of love.

Enter the efficiency police. Sometime before Christmas, each patient fills out a form with the size and color of cardigan wanted, whether a silver or gold watch. Come Christmas morning, two packages are handed to each patient. They open them and find what they asked for. End of Christmas.

R. S. Thomas was being inefficient one day in a thicket in Lleyn:

I was no tree walking.
I was still. They ignored me,
the birds, the migrants
on their way south. They re-leafed
the trees, budding them
with their notes. They filtered through
the boughs like sunlight,
looked at me from three feet
off, their eyes blackberry bright,
not seeing me, not detaching me
from the withies, where I was
caged and they free.
They would have perched
on me, had I had nourishment
in my fissures. . . .

Why will R. S. Thomas be remembered? One reason: Because he was a time-wasting man in a time that idolized multi-tasking.

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“docking mangels” – “A Peasant,” The Stones of the Field, 14.

“I was no tree walking” – “A Thicket in Lleyn,” Experimenting With An Amen, 45.

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9 thoughts on ““The Inefficiency of Efficiency” | Why R.S. Thomas Will Be Remembered

    • Yes, long may it flourish! But I must admit that I relish the efficiency of the internet that allows my blog to be appreciated by you in New Zealand within minutes of its posting here, and then allowing your comments to come winging back to me. I guess I’m a RST character: His time-wasting on the moors led to poems that he depended upon the efficiency of London publishers to get out to the world. But then (RST’s but . . . but . . . butting), New York publishers often thought that London publishers were inefficient.

  1. Excellent – On my way to Wildgoose 2013 and thinking about how these ideas would fit in so well with the festival – your wisdom would add that much more to the ongoing idea that ministry isn’t “to be done” – it’s “to be experienced”.

    • Great to hear from you, Suzanne. Travel safely, and may the festival be both centering and inspiring. Perhaps the Wildgeese will want to include RST and JGM next year, although JGM has outgrown the outhouse approach to living. I’m more a home-living and Porch-eating kind of guy.

      • Actually we are staying in a hostel with a bed and breakfast attached so we will let you know what it’s like.

  2. Your blog really resonated with me. I am a multi tasker who eventually gets some things done but I am easily distracted and sidetracked when something unexpected suddenly appears. The result is often an unexpected and delightful treasure. As you know, I am trying to sort through the boxes which were filled at the rush of the end of living at Springton and then just piled in my huge closet. So many photos, lists, written records of trips taken. Such delight. The eventual outcome will be less clutter since much is discarded but I probably won’t live long enough to get everything properly sorted and filed. I loved the R.S. Thomas poem. Thank you for your blogs.

    • Thanks, Barbara, for your comment. I’d say, from having learned to know you in the years since 1986, that you get a remarkable amount of work done, both creative and routine. You should see my second bathroom: it’s jammed with plastic storage tubs filled with family photographs, yearbooks, slides from trips, and who knows what. With the result that the room cannot be used for its stated purpose. But whenever I consider the tubs, there’s always something I’d rather do: write, read, cook dinner for friends.

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