The Muddling Middle

Photo by SUNBEAM PHOTOGRAPHY on Unsplash

When I first joined Instagram, I followed artists and calligraphers. At bedtime, I relaxed while watching the swoosh of their swoopy lines and the gentle colors curving out of their brush or palette knife. Now several years later, very few artists post real-time videos of their works in progress.

Same with cooking videos. They’re carefully edited so that their project appears in a few magical blips, or the time laps shows the completed product in impossible speed. Because of course no one has time to watch the laborious carrot peeling and chopping, or the vinaigrette blending, or the donuts rising.

In this culture of same-day Prime™ delivery and made-to-order food-to-go, the normalizing of unbelievable speed is working on me—and on all of us. Our moms learned how to depend on pressure cookers and microwaves, and our generation has taken speediness to the next level. I’m not mad about progress and efficiency, but I’m saying it’s messing with my sense of real time and my expectations.

I’m a very impatient person, (even though I try awfully hard to be polite and not demanding) and I care enormously about efficiency and not wasting time or energy. I’m also a dreamer and an artist, so when I imagine something, I feel that it should become reality instantly. Why do I need to walk down the steps if I want to get outside? Why can’t I just want to walk outside, and then I’m there? My personality in this culture of instant gratification is volatile in daily life. And on the level of spiritual growth and character development, my impatience really takes a beating.

I read a book years ago about a missionary doctor. It was a good-sized book, well over an inch thick, and it told of amazing developments and improvements in the doctor’s ministry in Africa. I remember thinking that it was a good story, but unrealistic because 1.25 inches of story couldn’t possibly portray the agonies and rigors of 20+ years of ministry. Turns out any story, any photo or video or beautiful testimony, can never capture the creaking reality of the time it takes to get to the finished product.

There’s no way to hurry the slow, tedious processes of tiny increments of progress. The finished product I want, whether it’s a lovely painting or a gorgeous cake or wise character, only emerges after laborious, un-documented, inefficient steps that often look like muddling and wasting time.

We want to treat life like a Starbucks drive-through where we get to hold exactly what we want, exactly as we like it within two minutes—double shot, extra hot, half-syrup—and if it takes five minutes, we want to talk to the manager.

Instead, in the pursuit of a cherished end product, we need to embrace the process of time it takes to get there instead of despise the wait or get mad when it doesn’t happen in a one-minute clip.

We need to value the journey just as much or more than the destination because that middle muddling space is where most of life happens. I hate it, but it seems to be true. This slow reality calls for a radical shift of expectations and a new definition of normal.

In my experience, the healing, growth, and good thing I want doesn’t instantly appear in the space of one eloquent prayer—and not even after ten or a ten-hundred good prayers. What I long for eventually takes shape in teeny, tiny ½ second bursts of light and insight that add up over umpteen repetitions of invisible, boring days of showing up and doing the next right thing. So those unseen acts matter. The middle muddle is important, not something to hate or talk to the manager about.

This week my piano teacher had high praise for what I played her. (As opposed to last week, when I played the worst ever. She’s always super gracious but there was little to praise then.) “What did you do differently this week?” she asked. I hadn’t done anything different. I’d only set the timer, practiced and practiced, and the repetitions came together at the lesson to produce my best performance.

I don’t know why God keeps me—and all of us—waiting so long for good things. In God’s economy of time, it often feels like time isn’t part of His equation. Being over time and controlling it, He doesn’t need time to make His art or complete His projects. He isn’t bothered with inefficiency like I am. Could it be that He sees more value in the process than in the product?

God’s ways are mysterious, because while He’s irritatingly unhurried, His sovereignty still aligns our finite time with His bigger plans with surprising precision. We slice and dice our time because it’s a precious resource. We stack our schedules so we can do several things at once. We plan tight time frames, breathlessly racing from one obligation to the next. He’s not so rushed or frantic, and His plans still produce beautiful results.

I don’t speak glibly about waiting. I have no illusions that patience is easy.

But I know He knows that we’re dust and that time is hard for us to live in. And He never forbids us to dream up, long for, create, and want good, beautiful things. What I love about God is that He wants goodness and beauty even more than we do. I think our biggest job is to join Him in the tedium, the ache, the muddle, the impossibility, and watch Him make everything beautiful in His time.

And if that seems too much like a fairy tale, castles in the air too good to be true for you to believe it, let’s wait it out. I’ll wait with you.

16 thoughts on “The Muddling Middle

  1. Have you discovered the art of Jake Weidmann, the world’s youngest master penman? He has perfected the process of slowing down and taking the time to turn out incredibly detailed, nuanced pieces of art that are filled with symbolism, grace, and meaning. If you haven’t watched his videos, you should.😉

    I love your writing. Muddling in the middle. Maybe that should be my life’s motto.

  2. As a school teacher, this was timely… a good reminder to enjoy the process of teaching my students, and not be obsessed with ideals of perfect students. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for these words! This looks different in each season. Your words found me, muddling in the middle of a week with sick children. It has been a year of muddling, with the addition of our beautiful daughter into already full lives. So although where you sit with your “pen” is strikingly different from where I sit to read your words, your words spoke life into my muddle. Thank you.

  4. Another excellent post, Anita. Good reminder for myself and I needed that reminder in regard to my children. I want instant gentlemen and ladies, full of character, wisdom and grace… today I’ll give thanks for those “teeny tiny 1/2 second bursts of light”. 😊

  5. Thank you for showing me I’m not alone in this struggle of wanting to avoid the tedious day to day process of doing the next right thing.
    Being “well & whole” is not so much a pinnacle we reach but a way of living.

  6. Thanks for your timely words Anita. Difficult circumstances can pull us down in the Muddling Middle. Love makes all things bearable as we wait with God.

  7. Yes I get them…I read this and need to reread it, it’s so good. It speaks to my high-efficiency, hurried soul. 😌
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  8. So Beautiful!

    And isn’t our struggle with time a longing for the perfection of eternity? I often felt like Lovell was made for eternity. He struggled so much with time frames. It was healing to think of him being in a place where time was no longer an issue.

    Thank you, Anita!

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