The Speed of Love

Lately I’ve noticed that even the way I waste time is less refreshing than it was before the internet and social media. I used to find myself staring out the window or doodling on paper. I still do these kinds of things, but much more often my allotment of bad time use is spent hitting a link from a relevant news story and finding myself, 20 minutes later, taking a quiz to find out which member of the Village People I am. It is certainly more efficient to keep up with my 332 friends on Facebook by scrolling down my news feed, but I leave the website feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. The small advertisements on the right simultaneously entice and appall me with the pinpoint accuracy of their knowledge of my consumer interests. Having a serendipitous meeting with a neighbor on my front porch and casually gabbing for 20 minutes is much less efficient, yet how rested I feel at the end of it.

When people with communication impairments are ready to speak, the conversation has already moved on.

My feelings about time have been challenged by my experiences with a small group of brain-injured individuals that meets weekly in a church basement. In the past few years, I have been interviewing and attending church services with stroke survivors to understand how they navigate through churches with various types of physical disabilities and communication impairments. How do stroke survivors with communication impairments become an integral part of a church that is formed by prayer requests, small group discussion and the congregational dialogue that cements a community? How have their church communities responded to the abrupt changes in their abilities? Although most of the stroke survivors I talked with were very positive about their churches and especially the support and prayer in the immediate aftermaths of their strokes, in the long term, many stroke survivors began to feel a lack of opportunities to serve and, most markedly, a sense of social isolation. Stroke survivors who have some communication impairment find the loss of language affecting their ability to make small talk, share small stories of joy or trouble, confront someone effectively, and tell jokes. Our social relationships are largely based on the conversations we have, both the brief and the intense.

THE BURDEN OF SPEED

Imagine a stroke survivor with a communication impairment in a typical church service. Before worship begins, only brief interactions take place as people are rushing around to drop off children or find seats. The service itself has moments of communal interaction, such as the passing of the peace, but even this is a verbal interaction; one stroke survivor told me he dreads this moment because he is unable to explain why he can’t say the expected words. After the service is when most of us spend social time with our fellow churchgoers. Yet even these conversations are usually quite quick; people check in with specific individuals for business and greet others they meet on the way out. Small groups form to discuss shared concerns or plans for meetings, and the conversation bounces from person to person rapidly; everyone is eager to get home to Sunday dinner.  In contrast, stroke survivors need more time to get up and move from place to place. Their comprehension and ability to join in a conversation may be slowed. Noise and distractions all around them make the situation even more challenging.

Worship services are unlikely to be places of intense or deep conversations for any of us. But if you can follow and contribute to fast-paced conversations, you can quickly let someone know of a concern or joy. Thus, time can be a barrier for those with communication disabilities, just as stairs or narrow aisles can be a physical barrier for those in wheelchairs. When people with communication impairments are ready to speak, the conversation has already moved on. Or they do speak but feel their friends around them becoming impatient as they talk. Although we would hope that other types of church fellowship would better include those who need more time to participate in conversations, small-group Bible studies or prayer groups are often not that different. There is a limited time set to share concerns or comment and argue about a book; members do not mean to exclude anyone, but those who take more time to speak may feel it would be better if they just listened.

The support group for stroke survivors and brain-injured people that I previously mentioned stands in stark contrast. Every Wednesday morning, about 10 to 15 people meet in a church basement for two hours with coffee and doughnuts; they then go out for lunch together afterward at a nearby restaurant. In this group’s two-hour meeting time, the only agenda is for the members to share a bit about their concerns and then pray for one another. Most of the meeting, however, is spent in stories and humor. There is plenty of time, and no one is in a hurry; people may talk very slowly or meander around to their points. You might say that everyone is patient with one another’s disabilities or the amount of time it takes for someone to speak, but that’s not exactly right. Patience is not really needed, because you are just having coffee and doughnuts with a group of friends.

THREE MILES AN HOUR

When I first attended this group, the slower pace sometimes reminded me of all the work I needed to get back to. But gradually I started to enjoy the respite from the “normal” speed of life. I began to realize that this was the pace of friendship, the moments you spend with your friends or family around a fireplace or sitting together after a meal when you have no particular plan but to be together. I also noticed how unusual it was to have sustained times of this type of fellowship in the church and that, despite the uniqueness of this group, it was clearly not seen as very important to the church that housed it. When I asked the leader what the church thought of the group, he said, “Well, they know that it exists.” In fact, a few years before, when the church had been trying to cut costs, it told group members it would be unable to support them with doughnuts anymore.

The slow-food movement has gained traction in recent years as people realize that snacking and grazing on ready-made food is ultimately unsatisfying; the efficiency of a meal eaten at McDonald’s is rarely worth what we lose in taste and health. Much of the delight of a dinner party comes from the relaxed atmosphere that results in good conversation: Lingering after the meal, we sip coffee or wine, with moments of both silence and speaking. For many of us, those moments are some of the most precious of our lives. This “slow communication” is also vital for us. Social media is clearly an efficient way to communicate, but are we absorbing its habits and assumptions in the same way we were seduced into buying TV dinners?

In the book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson describe how the metaphors of a culture’s language affect the way the speakers think about concepts. For example, the idea that “time is money” is reflected in the ways we talk about time: “I’m saving time”; “I’m living on borrowed time”; “That breakdown cost me two hours.” Cultures that do not have such metaphors embedded in their languages might not think of time as a commodity in the same way that Western cultures do.

New metaphors for communication with social media are revealing about our culture as well. They include the idea of the Internet as a place (“I’m going online”; “Internet communities are becoming more important”) and the Internet as a way of being (“He’s wired”; “I haven’t friended him”; “This restaurant is like Pinterest”). As we begin to think of social media as a way of being rather than as a tool, we begin to think of these “fast” modes of communication as the norm. Is this change in what we value in communication in society at large also happening within the church? Are we becoming satisfied with church communities with many opportunities for “fast” communication but little sustained, slow communication?

The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, in his book Three Mile an Hour God, makes the following comment to explain the meaning of the title:

God walks “slowly” because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is “slow” yet it is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice it or not, whether we are currently hit by storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.

The late Judith Snow, a disability advocate, used to talk about the many ways that people with disabilities would deeply transform able-bodied people. One of these “gifts” was slowing people down and making them more present to the immediate moment. Snow wryly noted that people were willing to pay to go to a spa or mindfulness retreat but that they would not recognize the same benefit when someone with a disability enabled those around her to speak and live at a slower pace. In fact, people often assume the benefit is only going in the opposite direction. As an able-bodied person myself, I’m wary of saying that a person with a disability has been a gift to me; I’ve heard many in the disabilities community cringe at being called a blessing or Christian role model. Yet I think Snow is correct. Spending the time we need for our most important and intimate types of communication is rare in our culture and churches. We would be happier and deeper communities if we more frequently slowed down to the pace of our three-mile-an-hour God and even began to realize that this speed should be the norm.

Peggy Goetz teaches speech pathology and audiology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.