Culture: Quill Pens or QVC?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Quill pens

A woman told me about a group of inner-city students who visited her country farm. One boy was shocked to see beans growing on a plant. He thought they came from cans. I frequently do the same thing with manufactured goods. I assume they aren’t made. I assume they just are. This isn’t about product origins or the need to support fair-trade and sweat-free products. Rather, it’s about what happens to us when we buy more often than we create, and whether such a practice is a bad practice or not.

Muffled thinking

On a recent camping trip, a student and I snaked our way up the long mountain road in my ’91 Toyota pick-up. I dodged potholes, water gullies and cliff edges, but could not avoid the two-inch deep washboard ridges that rattled and shifted us along the way. The constant vibration effect made our conversation sound like two kids talking into a fan on high speed. Then somewhere around mile four, the truck suddenly dropped its voice from tenor to bass. “Baaaaaaaugh,” it droned mournfully. I stopped. There in the reflection of my rearview mirror – fifty feet behind us – lay the tailpipe. It had rattled right off. When my mechanic told me I needed a whole new exhaust system, I certainly asked about the price. But I never asked where he’d buy the new parts or how they would be manufactured. I assumed he'd get them from a store, made ex nihilo by muffler elves or some other mythical metallurgists.

Then a week later, my friend, Bob, told me he had also taken his car to a repair shop for exhaust work. The man said to him, “Well, you’ll pay a bit more for us to do it, but you should know that the other guy you’re considering bends his own pipes. Do you want to take that risk?” My jaw dropped and I exclaimed to Bob, “Someone bends tailpipes?!” Here I had just spent $550 on the underbelly of my truck, and I felt like the boy who saw beans on the plant. Why did it shock me to learn that someone actually has to bend tailpipes – that they don’t simply appear in that bent state? Because I value efficacy over ingenuity when it comes to meeting shopping needs.

Efficacy over Ingenuity

Efficacy is the “capacity for producing a desired result.” Ingenuity is the “skill or cleverness in devising.” Efficacy has more to do with outcome; ingenuity with input and process. When it comes to shopping, I demonstrate the first far more often than the second. In short, I’m more effective at buying everyday solutions than I am ingenious at creating them. Here is why the tailpipe comment shocked me: When I buy instead of create, I forget that items can be made.

For example, I never consider building a luggage rack for our car. I just look for the best-priced version at the store. I don’t research how to grow, thresh and winnow wheat for breakfast. I pick up a box of Wheaties. I don’t go to the trouble of crafting a quill pen and ink when I can order 50 retractable ballpoints from Staples for $10.99 without ever leaving my seat. Mass-produced products exist for nearly every need under the sun. Who needs ingenuity?

I ask this question with tongue-in-cheek, of course. All of us reduce, re-use and recycle in one way or another, some more than others. And we create by baking cakes from scratch or by choosing to design websites instead of adopting pre-made, off-the-shelf templates. Ingenuity is alive for technology buffs, artists and a handful of do-it-yourselfers (Visit Wonder How To if you never want to buy off-the-shelf products again). But not for everyday shoppers. That’s why I think I’m not alone in this lean toward efficacy. Even in our relatively tight financial times, few people have stopped shopping in order to create. Instead, men have honed their search skills and women have become frugalistas. Bargain-hunting is the new black and we praise our neighbors and friends for finding super deals.

One result of this lean, as I mentioned above, is that we forget products can be made. Buying from the store becomes our default. I don’t like the thought of this practice but I have to ask: Is it bad? Are we out of balance between efficacy and ingenuity or is it okay to favor the former over the latter? As long as I favor efficacy, I run the risk of losing sight of the pipe bender. I send my own ingenuity into hibernation. I risk becoming a poor steward.

On the other hand, God is a productive, resourceful God. God is efficacious and we see this in the miracles of both the Old and New Testament. We continue witnessing it as God provides in our lives today. Miracles and God-given gifts aren’t products, per se, but they produce results which can not be created by the individuals who need them. We know we reflect God’s ingenuity. Should we equally reflect his efficacy? (Try answering this while watching QVC.)

Questions to ponder: 1. Which way do you lean – toward efficacy or ingenuity? 2. Why is it socially acceptable to create some products from scratch (e.g. cake for your spouse’s birthday) but not others (e.g. aluminum foil/coat hanger antenna for the car) 3. Why do you think the pipe bender was frowned upon by Bob’s mechanic? Post written by Sam Van Eman of New Breed of Advertisers. Photo by Ann Voskamp. Used with permission.

Poetry prompt: We've been celebrating 'slowing.' Make a "word pool" of at least five slow words. Yeah, I guess molasses counts. But verbs are good too. Create a poem using a minimum of one of your slow words, but feel free to use the whole pool.