Lightbulbs vs. People

(Catch the audio.)

In 1800, Humphrey Davy invented the electric arc. In 1860, Joseph Swan improved the electric arc concept with the addition of carbon filaments. In 1879, Thomas Edison discovered that putting carbon filaments in an oxygen-free bulb guaranteed that they would burn for up to forty hours. In 1882, Lewis Latimer patented a method for manufacturing carbon filaments.

Of all those listed above, you're probably most familiar with Thomas Edison, not because he was necessarily smarter than the others, but because he was a brilliant product marketer and a shrewd businessman, and while those two qualities didn't ensure that he went down in history as the world's nicest guy, they did ensure that he, you know... went down in history.

In fact, when I was growing up, I knew nothing of the other players in the lightbulb drama. But I did know about Edison. The American school system ensured that these two facts were drilled into my skull: that Edison had "invented the lightbulb" (single-handedly, for all I knew) and that he’d believed in hard work. 

To anyone educated in America, Edison's work maxims were inescapable:

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.  
Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.  
Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. 
There is no substitute for hard work.
I have little doubt that Edison did work hard and that he expected a similar work ethic from the Menlo Park assistants helping on the light bulb project (Francis Upton, Charles Batchelor, John Kruesi). I also have little doubt that we could learn a little something about persistence from studying the lives of famous inventors involved in bringing us the lightbulb. 

But I submit that these lessons in persistence should not be limited to our tasks. They should also be applied to our relationships, because the sad truth is that we give up on people too soon.

We give up on people, and they give up on us.

Somehow—perhaps because we're such a consumer-based society—we’ve developed the idea that people can be treated like products: when we are dissatisfied with what we've chosen—or if we've broken it—that’s okay: we can always just get a new one. 

Getting a new one is easier and cheaper than bothering with repairs. Right?

Had a falling out with a friend?  
Get a new friend. 
Difficulties with your brothers and sisters at church?  
Find a new church. 
Trouble with the boss or your co-workers?  
Get a new job. 
Strained relationship with a spouse? 
Get a new spouse. 
Family let you down? 
Define family as "anyone you love" and choose a new family. 

This attitude simplifies life. Right?

Not really. 

Although the idea of avoiding conflict resolution may sound attractive in the short-run, in the long-run, it just creates a lifestyle of chaos.

The vast majority of my friends who have gotten divorced and re-married don't necessarily find their lives simpler because they've done so. Perpetual church hopping inhibits the development of Christian community and hinders spiritual growth. People who constantly switch friend groups because of some drama or another are certainly no happier; in fact, each new switch robs them of the rich possibilities of deep friendship and seems to leave them less content than ever. Those who can't settle into a job because of interpersonal problems are rarely better off in their careers because of the constant switching, and those who have given up on their families are often saddest of all. 

As Christians, we're to act as ministers of reconciliation, a task that cannot be accomplished through a consistent pattern of fractured relationships. 

My challenge to you is to take the same diligence that the early inventors applied to improving the light bulb and apply it to nurturing the relationships in your life.

You may have failed in the past, but start where you are and go from there. Don’t worry if the work is hard or if it takes a long time. Edison purportedly tried thousands of different substances as filaments before he hit on something that worked.

And before you are sent reeling over the concept of sticking with someone even after they've let you down a few thousand times, understand that when Jesus told Peter to forgive someone up to "seventy times seven," he was actually using a metaphor for infinity.

That definitely gives us all something to work on.


  1. I think this applies to church families as well.

    1. As in, it's very easy to jump to a different one the second our toes get stepped on.

    2. Absolutely! Someone just made a similar comment on Facebook, so I edited the article to include that aspect. Thanks, Julie!


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