Have We Traded Empathy For Efficiency?

Vicky Willenberg Working Parent

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Standing in the doorway to my garage on Christmas Eve was like staring into the aisles of Toys R Us. To a casual observer, we were an episode of ‘Hoarders’ waiting to happen. 10 minutes later I sat crossed-legged on the family room floor, covered in layers of wrapping paper and bits of ribbon, staring at toys, video games, and t-shirts I had no memory of purchasing. Then and there I made a decision. Next Christmas, things were going to be different.

In a family as large as mine, gift giving took epic strategic planning. Relaying the exact specifications of the Lego set on my son’s list took no less than 3 phone calls to my 95-year-old grandmother, and my own mother who was tasked with taking her shopping.  Ensuring that the uncles and aunts understood the difference between Call of Duty and Halo was the result of ping-ponging emails. Guaranteeing that no gift was duplicated and the correct sizes were selected was a team effort.

Eventually, we decided to simply do the shopping for everyone.

It was easier.

It was cheaper.

It was more efficient.

Thanks to Amazon Prime, I can order 12 rolls of paper towels, a set of California King bed sheets, 2 boxes of cereal, and a new iPhone charger in less time than it takes to blow dry my hair. I can also order Christmas gifts for every person in my family, scheduling all of it to arrive on my doorstep before 10 a.m. the following day.

With the click of a few buttons and zero human interaction everyone is happy.

Thanks to modern technology, I glide in and out of Starbucks in under 2 minutes by ordering and paying for my drink through my phone. I may sacrifice 2 seconds of my time for a brief “thank you” as I’m checking my email and dashing back out the door. I’m in a hurry. I’m being efficient. Eye contact and a smile just don’t fit into my schedule.

No one would dispute that all of us are busy. Our schedules are fuller and traffic is heavier than it has ever been. Our biggest commodity is time and we are always looking for ways to save it. But are some of these “life hacks” really making our lives any easier? Have they given us more time, made us happier, more understanding, more patient?  In my opinion, all these “tricks” have done is trained us to expect things to be accomplished immediately and on our schedules. They’ve made us selfish and intolerant of anyone that slows us down.

We’ve traded empathy for efficiency.

When we don’t pre-order our Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte, and we have to wait in line, we have no patience for the woman who failed to have her wallet ready when she arrived at the cashier or the gentleman who wants to know the difference between Pike’s and Blonde roast. (Doesn’t he know he can look that up online?)

We forget that these moments, when our patience is tested and we are inconvenienced, provide the opportunity for us to be our better selves, maybe even our best selves. When the woman frantically digging in her purse in search of her wallet, shoots an apologetic smile over her shoulder we have two options. We can huff while giving her a tight-lipped smile – making it abundantly clear that her inefficiency is not appreciated – or we can offer up a “no problem” kind of smile and tell her to take her time.  Because really… is an extra 25 seconds in line really going to ruin your day?

We are not factories, nor are we machines. We are human beings made for connection and community – even when it’s not convenient.

For the last two years, we’ve stopped buying all the gifts. We email the kids’ lists and answer any questions about sizes or latest editions and offer up store coupons that came in the mail. We take our kids shopping so they can spend their own money on a gift or each other and us. Yes, we brave the lines and packed aisles of Target and Barnes & Noble. Sometimes it takes a second trip to find the perfect gift. And sometimes even a third.

It’s not easier.

It’s not rarely cheaper.

It’s most certainly less efficient.

But it gives us a chance to step outside of ourselves and our own schedules. It reminds us to practice patience and kindness regardless of the clock. We smile more easily, we chat with strangers more freely, and we remember that while all of this could be accomplished in the privacy of our own home when it fits best into our own busy lives, life’s not all about getting things done as quickly as possible.  Sometimes it’s about enjoying the process.

I will hang on to my empathy at the expense of my efficiency any day of the week.


About the Author

Vicky Willenberg

Vicky Willenberg is a wife and mom. She currently work in Social Media and Communications when she is not folding laundry from 2 weeks ago, driving someone to practice or looking for the dog, Spike, who has escaped yet again. Vicky chronicles the good, the bad and the hilarious on her blog, .

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