Last weekend I had the opportunity to hear a message from Luther alumnus Kurt Helmann ’16 during church service at First Lutheran in Decorah. Kurt was visiting to share his perspective from his year in Cambodia as part of the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program. Kurt was one of several Luther alumni who spent their year abroad, including Kelly Harris ’15, who was in Rwanda last year and returned to Luther as a residence life professional this year. This year there are again several Luther alumni out in the world sharing their gifts and talents in service as part of the YAGM program.
Kurt’s message struck a chord with me as he shared how waiting became a common experience that at first was challenging to him given the “doer culture” from which he came. He acknowledged he was not unaware of this aspect of our American culture but that being in Cambodia, it became more obvious to him. Kurt reflected on how we “obsess with providing tactile results and hurrying into our next priority or objective.” He further explained that once one objective is met, we move on to the next thing and the next after that. Kurt observed that while we focus on our own goals, our productivity, we can lose sight of the places and people around us. Unfortunately, we can view waiting as unproductive, a waste of time.
At Luther, I challenge students (and my colleagues) to be wary of being busy. Not that I wish for people to be unproductive, but we can get caught up in all that we seemingly have to do and distance ourselves from what may be most important in the moment. This culture of busyness has ramifications that affect the well-being of our community. From increased anxiety, to an insidious competiveness that can keep students from feeling good about getting enough sleep, to simply missing those most magical moments when learning truly occurs, we can fall into a false sense of feeling in control when in fact we may be controlled by our environment.
Kurt shared that in Cambodia waiting is not experienced as a negative, whereas in our culture it often times is. I certainly have had my moments waiting, whether in line, or for service at a restaurant, or wanting the traffic to get moving (though that is very uncommon in Decorah!). I know with technology–email, messaging apps, and the general expectation of an instant response or gratification—we often struggle with the wait. Tom Petty’s lyric “the waiting is the hardest part” is indeed true. Kurt learned that during those times when he found himself waiting, it provided an opportunity to intentionally listen and be with other people. He gained an appreciation for these moments because they provide a way to be actively mindful of time—not of its passing, but of its utility and of where and when one chooses to use it.
On campus, there are times when waiting can be similarly useful. Walk into any space where people are gathered and you will most likely find people tethered to their digital devices before the reason they’ve gathered has begun. What might this look like if we took Kurt’s newfound wisdom into account? It may lead to, as Kurt shared, “the most engaging moments, filled with great conversation, story-sharing, serious dialogue, and endless amounts of learning.” In Cambodia, goy lang, which translates to “sit play,” became part of Kurt’s pastime. Goy lang is a colloquial equivalent for “hanging out” or spending unstructured time together.
For many of our students today, unstructured time was quite rare prior to college. Indeed, this was something Kurt confronted while in Cambodia. Kurt explained that “YAGM volunteers are first called to be, instead of focusing solely on the doing or accomplishing of service work. The act of simply being with others, in waiting or without a set agenda, allows for learning, understanding, and sharing that leads to authentic relationship-building and a sense of togetherness.” This sense of togetherness is one of the positive attributes we often hear about our Luther community. I can’t help but wonder if we were to slow down even just a bit—to be in the wait—how much more fully we might move into our sense of community.
With the semester now complete, students may be returning home, and I imagine you may have times of waiting ahead of you. When will they get out of bed? What will their grades be? Have they decided on a major? These are some of the questions you may ask. For a parent (I write as the father of a high school junior), this act of waiting can be challenging. Perhaps we can learn from Kurt’s experience and adopt a similar principle. Being with my daughter is one of the greatest joys I have. We don’t need to be doing anything, and when we can engage in reflective conversations that are organic, that is truly one of the richer moments in my life.
Here are some questions that might be fruitful to ask your student if you find yourselves waiting: What has surprised you most about college? What interesting and important insights have you learned about yourself? What is the most fascinating thing you learned about the world? What are you better at now than you were six months ago? What do you want to be better at when you graduate—whether next semester or in three and a half years? I trust you can think of others—any question that can tap into the wisdom they have gained but may not have unearthed is worth exploration.
In closing, I encourage you to visit ELCA presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s brief Advent message in which she reflects on the busyness of her day and recalls how she was “everywhere all of the time and therefore no anywhere at all.” She was advised to meditate on four words: Just This. Just Now. Kurt reveled in goy lang. However you welcome waiting, I hope you find stillness and peace in this season of Advent.