Thursday, February 25, 2016

on setting the microwave clock (and other unhelpful solutions)

We got back last week from a 10-day trip to Nicaragua. The microwave clock at our friends' house where we stayed was consistently off by several hours, which naturally bothered me a great deal. I fixed it once, and when a few days later it was again wrong by an unreasonable amount of time, it made me laugh rather than annoyed. Here's why:

For the first year that we lived in Nicaragua, we shared an apartment with my brother and his wife and the first of their three children. (They had been living in country for about a year and a half by that point.) In addition to the learning curve of sharing living space with others, there was a much more stressful learning curve of adjusting to culture and climate. Every difference between Nicaragua and the States stood out sharply, and if I’m honest, these differences seemed poorly planned, inefficient, and sweaty*. I always wanted to shake my head and say, "What a crazy, backwards country!"

One thing that bothered me right off the bat was how the microwave always read "0" instead of the current time. When I asked my brother about it, the conversation went a little like this:

ME: Is your microwave clock broken?

HIM: I don't think so.

ME: How come you guys don't have it set?

HIM: Oh, the power outs reset it.

ME: It takes like what—two seconds to fix?

HIM (shrugging): It's not worth it to have to set it all the time.

I disagreed. After all, the next power out might not be for several days, and we could have a convenient way of telling time until then for only a few seconds' worth of effort! Naturally, I nominated myself the microwave clock-setter. It was super easy, and I only had to do it a few times per month.

I don't know at what point I stopped bothering. I think it happened through my beginning to understand that it actually was a futile exercise, that there was no final victory possible—only unending small defeats. But the consequence of accepting defeat was pretty minor; it wasn't the same kind of worsening outcome like not brushing your teeth or neglecting car maintenance. There were, in fact, other ways to tell time, and knowing the exact hour wasn't as important in my new life as it had been before.

This rush to a solution is a phenomenon that I see in a lot of our approaches to other people's lives, to Nicaragua, and probably to the rest of the world. In a desire to be helpful—or, maybe just from being bothered by inefficiencies—we offer solutions to people for things that they may not see as important problems. It's not wrong for us to do this, especially since sometimes people didn't realize how much effort or time they were losing to a problem with a simple solution. But sometimes the "simple solution" is just to accept the problem; we may not realize how much effort or time we're losing trying to gain dominion over it. Or to put it in a different light, Nicaragua could probably shake its metaphorical head at us and say, "What crazy, demanding people!"

High expectations of how people, systems, life, technology, etc. "ought to work" probably have a really important place in improving the world around us, but if they're held too dearly they will probably do more to make us dissatisfied with our surroundings than to make our surroundings satisfactory.

*This freshness of cultural contrast also tends to make newer missionaries more consistent at updating blogs or other social media. Differences seem less interesting the more that time passes.

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