The Cost of Efficiency

My Grandfather, whom I never met, was a doctor. A real old-fashioned one who treated whole families, like you’d see in a black-and-white movie.

His name was Isidore Brill, but people called him “Doc”. Yes, he made house calls; even delivered babies, before they had specialists to do that. In his hometown of Champaign, Illinois, he was well known. And if you couldn’t afford to pay him, well, that was all right, you paid him when you could.

Doc Brill served in the war, and afterwards worked so hard, he had a heart attack and died in his 40s. He left my Grandma, Rosa Lee Brill, to raise their 3 daughters (the middle one is my mom). After he died, there was so much unpaid debt, as the question of insurance or how the patient was going to pay for his services was never asked. Some of the debt was collected…much of it was just “written off”…which is what Doc would have wanted.

Unfortunately for all of us, doctors like Doc Brill are a part of the history books.

Brill Wedding
“Doc” and Rosa Lee Brill, wedding picture

I’m just old enough to remember a time when a doctor’s office consisted of one or two doctors, a nurse (maybe), and someone to answer the phone. In fact even my doctor’s office here in Gainesville used to be that way. But they’ve long since closed down, and my doctor left to join a massive conglomerate with about 50 doctors and specialists, and a staff of 100s. The focus there is on efficient delivery of standardized medical services, and they do that quite well. But good luck to you if you ever don’t pay your bill on time, or have some kind of medical crisis that might require some extra compassion on their side (unless compassion is a covered service they can bill for).

I’m not here to gripe about them today, though. They have their purpose.

By today’s standards, if you had to use to use two terms to describe the way Doc Brill ran his practice, they would probably be: “Bad Business” and “Inefficient”. Well…maybe my Grandfather, who never knew me, would be proud, because you could probably accuse Friends Across the Ages of having the same faults.

You see, efficiency makes good business sense. But there are some problems with it. You probably notice it when you call tech support and are swiftly routed to the correct department, where you reach operator #4957 (in India). Now there’s some magnificent efficiency for you there. By the way, how’d that last tech support call work out for you?

So don’t dismiss inefficiency too quickly. There are two flavors of it. Sure, there’s the kind that is just lazy and slow, for no good reason. But there’s the other kind, that realizes that every person that comes your way deserves to be treated like a human being, even if it slows you down a bit.

“Every good cause is worth some inefficiency.” — Paul Samuelson, Nobel Prize winning economist

That kind is inefficiency is willing to give someone a chance, whom the odds are stacked against. We’ve been fortunate to take some Special Needs volunteers over the years. I remember one of them, “Joanne”, telling us she had tried to volunteer all over town, and had been turned away everywhere else. I’m glad we were inefficient enough to take the time to work with her. The experience was time consuming, but transformative for Joanne, us, and the nursing home residents she visited.

I invite you to take this message to heart on your next nursing home visit. The nursing home is a great place to practice some wonderful inefficiency. Walk a little more slowly down the halls. When you walk slow, your body language projects that you are less busy. Maybe a nursing home resident will strike up a conversation with you, and you’ll make a new friend. Talk slower, linger a little bit longer after the first “uncomfortable silence”. Forget about whatever agenda you had for that visit.

Here’s a scenario (taken from actual events): maybe you run into a resident who has a craving for cheesy puffs. (Who among you reading this has not experienced the urgent, desperate craving for cheesy puffs from time to time?) It would certainly be inefficient, but you just drop everything and walk to the Quicky Mart down the street and buy them a bag. And when you return, and see the look on that resident’s face when they take their first bite, and you see their fingertips covered in all-natural bright-orange fluorescent cheese, you’ll know that was some delicious inefficiency right there!

[The law offices of Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe has urged me at this point to inform you to please ask a nurse before buying food, including the aforementioned cheesy puffs, for any nursing home resident.]

The truth is, we haven’t run Friends Across the Ages efficiently, and I’m proud of it. We used to get calls all the time from people who needed services in their home. Elders who desperately needed help with daily tasks around the house. Rarely were we able to get directly involved, but what we did offer was a listening ear, a voice of genuine compassion on the other end of the line. They weren’t getting that anywhere else they called.

My friend Arupa Freeman runs an outreach to people who are homeless. She used to call it the “Home Van”. She wrote this about her experience one Friday:

“We had a young mother and a five-year-old who came to us on one rainy Friday. They had an apartment as of Monday morning, but no shelter for the weekend. We got them into a motel. There will always be a need for small, non-bureaucratic missions like the Home Van, who are in a position to address situations like that.”

Yes! What would happen if all the “inefficient” grassroots charities closed down, who would fill that gap?

I know I’ve jumped around a lot here, but the point I’m trying to make is this:

Inefficiency isn’t necessarily something you strive for, it just kind of happens. It happens naturally when you accept the premise that every person that comes your way deserves to be treated like a human being, and they deserve your undivided attention, even if just for a few moments.

“…for through it, some have unknowingly entertained angels”.

Efficiency gets things done. Without it, our economy would suffer and we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the standard of living to which we’ve grown accustomed. But it is important, among all the buzz and efficient milling about, to embrace some healthy inefficiency from time to time.

We can practice this at the nursing home, and apply it at home with our children as well.

I don’t always follow my own advice so well in this department. I’m going to try to slow down. I hope Doc Brill would approve!

Doc Brill

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