The unexpected thing I learned from All the Light We Cannot See

Earlier this week, I wrote about how All the Light We Cannot See is the best book I’ve ever read. (You can read that post here.) Besides the amazing writing and the wonderful characters, reading this book and learning more about it reminded me of something important.


Last week, I was listening to Episode 6 of the podcast What Should I Read Next? Anne interviewed Tsh Oxenreider, who chose All the Light as a book she loved. In the discussion of the book, either Anne or Tsh mentioned that it took Anthony Doerr ten years to write this book. TEN YEARS. That blew me away. Ten years is a long time. Talk about a life’s work.

So often, I want an immediate return on my investments. I talk to Ian about obedience a handful of times and want him to obey from there on out. I meet a new acquaintance for coffee and hope a deep and abiding friendship immediately emerges. I want to sit in front of my computer for a couple hours and hammer out a blog post or article that resonates deeply with thousands. All the Light reminds me that anything worth doing is worth doing well…and sometimes, “well” means slowly.

I can’t remember anything I’ve ever worked on that required a long runway from conception to completion. School is broken up into grades and then further into semesters, quarters, and weeks. Each of those periods is guided by objectives, and you indicate your mastery (or not) at the end with a test. Everything has a clear beginning, clear end, and a clear outcome. As an elementary school teacher, of course, that pattern continues. (And because I only taught for one year before changing careers, I didn’t have the benefit of watching my abilities gradually change and improve over time.) In children’s ministry, deadlines come fast: every single Sunday, in fact.

As a stay-at-home-mom, I now find myself in a sort of limbo. The lack of deadlines, lack of clear-cut accomplishments, and inability to say, “Here’s what I’ve been working on and here’s what I have to show for it,” has been driving me a bit crazy.

But there is value in working toward the a singular goal slowly over time and seeing it come fully to fruition, no matter how long it takes. That’s the deal with parenting. We work hard, day in and day out for years and years. Our children will long outlive us (God willing), meaning we will never see all the fruits of our labors. Those children then parent their own and so on, and the impact of our work goes far beyond what we’ll ever see our understand. This is also what Jesus talked about when he asked his disciples to pursue a long obedience in the same direction. Following Jesus is not simply a “before and after,” but a gradual unfolding and long-term transformation.

I’m not the first to say that instant gratification defines our culture these days. We text instead of waiting for people to return our calls, we order toilet paper and paper towels with the literal click of a button, we swipe cards instead of counting out our coins, we binge watch instead of sitting down at appointed times each week. So much of that is helpful and good. (And as a parent, I could not be more grateful for the fact that diapers can quickly be delivered to my doorstep.)

But I also wonder if all this has skewed my perspective on what it means to be successful and do meaningful work. I want something to show for my efforts, and fast. And when that doesn’t happen, I feel like I’ve failed.

I’m sure I knew this already, somewhere deep down, but this was the surprising truth All the Light We Cannot See reminded me of: the best things take time. I am so grateful that Anthony Doerr was willing to show up and do the work of writing this novel, day after day for ten years. No doubt, some days he wondered if the story would ever be finished, if he would ever hold the published book in his hands. But here we are.

So, friends, let’s do the work. Let’s parent the children, write the books, relinquish the perfectionism, learn the languages. Whatever your work may be, let’s remember that the work is worth it, no matter how long it takes.

I absolutely loved this interview with Anthony Doerr, from before he was done writing All the Light We Cannot See. (He alludes to the novel towards the end of the interview.) His thoughts on the hard work of writing are especially good (and encouraging!).

3 thoughts on “The unexpected thing I learned from All the Light We Cannot See

  1. YES. God has been working on my heart about doing work well—whatever it is He’s set before me. This is good.

  2. I’m so glad that meant something to you. And I love how you tied in Peterson. 🙂

  3. Ha! Funny thing about that, Anne! I had learned heard that phrase–“long obedience in the same direction”–years ago from my pastor. I googled it for this post because I wanted to make sure I substantiated it, and stumbled upon that book! I didn’t even know it existed.

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