Get Slowed Down

A classic American text, John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. This non-fiction work chronicles Graves’s three-week trip down the Brazos River in Texas, and along the journey, Graves reflects on nature, his own life, and local history with remarkably crisp insights. At the beginning of this solitary trek, he scribbled in his notebook, "The hard thing is to get slowed down." Later, in trying to discern what he meant, he writes, "Probably it means I was impatient with my own dawdling slowness, prodigious and no trouble at all to attain, and that I then grew irked with my impatience. Impatience is a city kind of emotion, harmonious with ’drive’ and acid-chewed stomachs, and I presume we need it if we are to hold our own on the jousting ground this contemporary world most often is. But it goes poorly on a river....To let it erode one’s calm for the time that it must last, is to deny the worth of being there." I thought about Graves’s words as I read the New Testament lesson for this third week in Advent: "Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand" (James 5:7-8) In the run-up to the celebration of Christmas--a holiday that supposedly epitomizes peacefulness--the Advent season proves remarkably chaotic and turbulent. The usual culprits are obvious: Christmas shopping, travel plans, finishing work before the new year, final exams and family dynamics on Christmas day. If we think about "the coming of the Lord" in terms of Christmas, one quality least on display during December is patience. By the time December 25 is "at hand," many people’s wellsprings of patience have run dry. James uses an agricultural metaphor to emphasize waiting. From this metaphor, we see that impatience goes just as poorly in the field as it does on a river. A farmer cannot make the crops come up any more quickly or any more slowly than the rains intend. Neither will Christmas come any sooner or later due to our fretting. One reason we are drawn to the manger scene, I think, is because its pastoral simplicity takes us out of our urbanized drive that leads to "acid-chewed stomachs." Christmas songs such as "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "It Came upon a Midnight Clear" place the Nativity within a framework of a quiescence that refreshes our spirits. Graves is probably right to say we need "drive" to keep our place in this hectic society, but Advent should help us "get slowed down." By slowing down and spurning impatience, we can, as James puts it, strengthen our hearts. Or, as Graves puts it, find "the worth of being there." Kyle Keefer

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