We have traveled a lot in the last few days, with much our time waiting around in airports for the next flight. One airport had recharging stations set up on tables similar to library reading tables, and I sat across from two men who worked for a technology company that had something to do with fluid dynamics.
Both were hard at work on their computers, and sometimes on their phones with clients or coworkers. One was in his late 50s, and clearly the master of his profession. The other was in his 20s, and clearly the master of quick thinking, and the mechanics of his work. I got to watch them for an hour or so as close to an invisible presence as possible.
What I noticed was the younger man’s impatience with older man’s questions that required reflective answers, especially questions that touched on some issue involving calculations or statistical analyses, on which each was working. The younger man would snap back that he had already done it, had it under control, and was way ahead of the other on everything.
The older man wanted some reflective thinking about how what they were working on would affect customers, suppliers, and coworkers in other departments. The younger man expected mathematical analysis to speak for itself with no need for additional reflection about things that could not be calculated or factored into computer code. It would just slow things down.
Yes, there was a bit of youthful arrogance in the form of, “I’m young, smart, and fast while you are old, slow, and behind the times.” But the older man’s knowledge, speed and abilities appeared to the be the equal of his young companion. What was more striking was the younger man’s inability to recognize the importance of how much work is a function of relationships between humans that must be factored into any calculation that will affect those relationships. I don’t think that’s a characteristic of youth as such. It seems to be something more in keeping with an education lacking in the liberal arts, the failure of management to provide appropriate training and education, and possibly a function of one’s basic personality type.
I’m a little hesitant on that last part because I’m unconvinced that we are so hardwired into particular personality types that we cannot adapt. Arguments of “that’s just the way I am” are signs of emotional laziness more than anything else. I’m reminded of a class I taught in an executive MBA program some decades ago. It was called Management and Society, the only first year non-quantitative class they were required to take. Most of my students were technical people from engineering or medicine, and they were uncomfortable trying to cope with issues that could not be graphed or calculated, but they did it.
It may not have turned engineers into diplomats. Reflective thinking about relationships may have remained a struggle. But they were smart enough to know that they now had the basic tools to engage in that work, and that it was an important work. The only question that remained was whether they would be too lazy to do it. I often wonder about what happened to them. How many went on like the young man across the table from me who could put numbers on faces, but could not put faces on numbers?
Beyond that question, the brief play acted out before me also had something to say to the Church. Ours is a faith that encourages slow, reflective thinking. The entrance bar is low: a little water, “accepting” Jesus, and a juvenile grasp of the text is all there is, maybe all there needs to be. But it offers so much more when the text is comprehended on multiple levels that compete with each other while revealing something new at each reading; when life is lived slow enough to allow suspension of judgment; and when enchantment is allowed to penetrate the ordinary of daily life.
That doesn’t lend itself to a text messaging, spreadsheet informed society lived at digital light speed, nor should it. Maybe we need to be more assertive about inviting the world, in the words of the old spiritual, to come on in, sit down, and rest a little while.