Distraction and Disengagement

Sam Guzman, The Catholic Gentleman, has recently written an important piece identifying one of the most pervasive problems in the world of young people: Attention and the Distraction Addiction. In his article he notes:

Whether or not we realize it, our attention is now a commodity to be bought and sold. We think we are mindlessly relaxing, scrolling through our Instagram or Facebook feed. In reality, advertisers are purchasing our attention and using the years of social data we have given them to know what we want before we know we want it.  And it works. It is nearly irresistible. It is designed to be so.

I, like Sam, have an iPhone. This iPhone keys me into my Instagram and Twitter accounts (sorry, I dropped Facebook), among other applications, and while I’d like to think I am immune to the need to check Instagram for recently uploaded pictures of friends and their families, woodworkers, butchers, and antique book dealers, I am not. Nor am I immune to checking Twitter for my well-crafted news and opinion resources. I rarely have any restraint when it comes to when and how often. As a teacher, I thankfully have the summer off to spend with my children, but regrettably, I find myself sneaking peaks of this or that photo feed or check to see what breaking news or

As a teacher, I thankfully have the summer off to spend with my children, but regrettably, I find myself sneaking peaks of this or that photo feed or checking to see what breaking news or hot take I should consider in order to pass as well informed in an age of endless information instead of giving myself wholly over to the fun project or silly game that the girls and I are engaging.

Engaging. The word engage has its roots in the Germanic side of the Indo-European world: from Proto-Germanic *wadjō (“pledge, guarantee”), from Proto-Indo-European *wedʰ- (“to pledge, redeem a pledge; guarantee, bail”). This is why we also associate the word with betrothal and marriage.This is the crux of the matter: We often fail to invest ourselves into the moment and instead seek distraction, regularly with the aid of our little device and regularly to the point of addiction.

This is the crux of the matter: we often fail to invest ourselves into the moment and instead seek distraction, regularly with the aid of our little device and regularly to the point of addiction.

This is the crux of the matter: We often fail to invest ourselves into the moment and instead seek distraction, regularly with the aid of our little device and regularly to the point of addiction.

Simon Sinek has a related video where he defines millennials and then addresses their situation and their unhappiness. In point #2 (~3:15) that he makes has to do with dopamine, technology addiction, and the hits we get when get a like, a new email or text, or see a photo first (“First Comment!“).

With Guzman, I also think the technology we have takes us out of the moment, disengages us from the task that is hard or boring or not as feel good as receiving a text or seeing something mindlessly fun.

Our fragmented attention is causing us to miss out on a great deal of joy.

I often wash the dishes at night when my family’s to bed. Sometimes I listen to music, like my well-culled Gregory Alan Isakov Pandora station. Other times it’s a podcast (Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time program) or a lecture (usually from the Thomistic Institute). I ordinarily give myself a pass because these podcasts or lectures are informative and can be intellectually or spiritually edifying. But the fact is that I listen to music or someone else’s thoughts because the dullness of washing dishes is tough. It’s really tough.

As a counter to this addiction to distraction that Gentleman Sam adeptly notes, I’ve recently abandoned the distraction of my headphones while washing dishes. Sam again:

We must resist mindlessness, and not by half measures. I believe we have a very real duty to struggle against distraction. As Christians, we are all called to be poets—not literally perhaps, but in the sense of seeing fully and feeling deeply the mystery of things. To quote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” but without awareness, without attention, we cannot experience this sacramental reality. We cannot receive it as the gift that it is, with joy and wonder and gratitude, if we are not awake enough to notice it. And not merely notice it in a superficial, cursory manner, but truly contemplate it in its richness and beauty.

During Lent, I tried to turn the radio off during my commutes to work and back. Again, the silence was rarely a gift or calming mechanism from the loudness of everyday life. You see the dull, the daily stuff pass by on the interstate that you’ve seen a hundred or a thousand times before. But it’s good to see that stuff. It’s good to marvel at the fact that others are doing the same thing as you — driving their cars, going to work. It’s good to feel sympathy for the poor couple on the roadside having to change a flat. It’s good to see the lone bumper on the edge of the road and pray that everyone from the rest of that car is okay and was uninjured.

It’s good to talk to, to engage, the check-out attendant at the grocery store instead of checking your texts messages. It’s good, and far better, to play with your daughters and to go on walks with them without checking Twitter:

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Sitting in these ordinary places is good. It’s good to wash dishes and let it bore you for a moment. It’s good to read or write or, as a teacher, grade, without music on.

(Cal Newport has an excellent chapter in his important book Deep Work, simply titled “Embrace Boredom” — more on that, I hope, another day).

It is in the boredom, the everyday, the ordinary that we experience the well-orderedness of God’s grandeur vis-à-vis the chaos of our social media. This is why the ordinary of the Catholic Mass does not change, excepting the occasional variance for the liturgical season.

In his commencement address to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace begins with a short parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

I encourage you to read or listen to this readily available address. The water is the ordinary, the distraction-free everyday humdrum in which the Lord has placed us, our families, and our fellows.

And by the end of it, Wallace makes the similar point as Guzman about awareness:

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.

Of course, if you do listen to this speech, don’t do it while washing the dishes.

Fasting and Lent

Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast.

This Wednesday begins Quadragesima or Lent, the time in which Holy Church has set aside for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. On this practice of fasting (L. ieiunium), I have take a page from the Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy:

Fasting and Abstinence

The Church’s current regulations in the U. S. require fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; abstinence from meat on the Fridays of Lent; and abstinence from meat or some other penitential or charitable work on every non-Lenten Friday of the year, unless the Friday falls on a solemnity. Abstinence is binding from age 14; fasting is binding from age 18 until age 59. “According to the Church’s law, the ‘substantial observance’ of Fridays as days of penance, whether by abstinence or in other ways, ‘is a grave obligation.’ (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, 1966, Norm II, 2).” (Fr. John Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary, 1979).

What is Fasting?

Fasting according to the Church’s norms means eating only one full meal per day. Two smaller meals or snacks may also be eaten, sufficient to maintain one’s strength, but together they should not equal the one full meal. No food may be taken between meals; but liquids, including milk and juice, may be taken between meals. Expectant mothers and the sick are not bound to fast. When health or ability to work would be seriously affected, the law does not oblige. In the current regulations, fasting is always accompanied by abstinence from meat. That is, both of the obligatory fasting days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) are also days of abstinence from meat. “Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended.” (NCCB, November 18, 1966). Fasting on Holy Saturday is specifically recommended by the Church (currently).

What is Abstinence?

Abstinence from meat means that no meat (the flesh and organs of mam- mals and fowl), meat gravy, or meat soup may be taken.

The Monastic Fast

The Rule of St. Benedict establishes a fourfold variation in the yearly rhythm of feasting and fasting. From Easter until Pentecost there are two meals, both lunch and supper, since we cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with us. From Pentecost to mid-September, there is fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, with one meal only, taken in the middle of the afternoon, around 3:00 pm. (There was no custom of breakfast in the Rule). From mid-September until Lent, there is one meal only, taken in mid-afternoon (except Sundays and feasts). During Lent, there is one meal only, but taken later in the day, at 5:30 pm. The Rule also has the monks abstain from meat (although there is some ambiguity in the text about the details). In all these variations, there is a wonderful harmony between what happens in church and what happens at table, as we celebrate the feasts and fasts of the Church’s liturgical year.

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Brueghel’s “The Battle of Carnival and Lent” (1559)

Because I largely think the heart of the Church is located in the monasteries and convents of her religious, I believe the last fast, “the monastic fast” is particularly instructive and surely edifying, even to the lay faithful. Consider also the Catholic Encyclopedia, published a decade into the twentieth century (1909):

In the United States of America all the days of Lent; the Fridays of Advent (generally); the Ember Days; the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, as well as those (14 Aug.) of the Assumption; (31 Oct.) of All Saints, are now fasting days… Fasting essentially consists in eating but one full meal in twenty-four hours and that about midday. It also implies the obligation of abstaining from flesh meat during the same period, unless legitimate authority grants permission to eat meat. The quantity of food allowed at this meal has never been made the subject of positive legislation. Whosoever, therefore, eats a hearty or sumptuous meal in order to bear the burden of fasting satisfies the obligation of fasting. Any excess during the meal mitigates against the virtue of temperance, without jeopardizing the obligation of fasting.

In many ways, the Church has as of recent years relaxed many of its fasting obligations. I have no doubt the bishops have their reasoning for relaxing the Lenten fast, just as they have relaxed the Communion fast — from midnight of the previous day to three hours before to now simply one hour prior (e.g., not eating during Mass…) But for me, the point of the matter is that our Lord fasted in his earthly life and that the saints after him fasted as well. For my own practice, I hope to maintain the fast throughout the day until returning home from work, breaking the fast for a late afternoon/evening meal with my family and then resuming the fast for the remainder of the day.

Reading Aloud

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Marguerie Gérard, “Woman Reading in an Interior” (1795-1800)

For the past two years, I have been on my students about how they read.

Often I am convinced that they don’t, haven’t, and won’t. These students walk in after having been assigned something rather brave, rather dramatic, say Tacitus’s Agricola, which at times channels Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt, or Orlando Bloom rallying their troops with a speech tour-de-force. And yet my students, half of them it seems, say they “didn’t finish the text” (~30 pages on a week), or that it was boring (…), or that they didn’t understand what the assignment was about. Any one of these responses deeply worries me.

At the same time, I suppose I’m somewhat sympathetic. I didn’t enjoy reading at an early age — that is until I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit (for fun) and an entire world of reading opened up to me. I remember finding the dark paperback on Mrs. Bumgardner’s Books To Read shelf. Thinking this was a mistake, I seized the text, brought home the plunder, and, like Mr. Baggins, pilfered its treasures inexhaustible for that single golden cup.

Am I the best reader? No. Am I a very disciplined reader? For the most part, not at all. In fact, I often think about other matters tangential or even superfluous to the author’s words, theses, or tonal force. I am frequently set off by a word, like a note in a familiar key of a once cherished song. The sound sets off the memory, some distant, unrehearsed phrase uttered somewhere in space, like Holy Scripture, Shakespeare, favorite radio tunes, even commercials. I meditate on these ornamented fixtures, drifting off, away from the page into some other world.

[This is also how I teach, breaking in at many a time to rehearse a song or line that an uttered word set off.]

At long last, I slowly find my way back to the text. I assuredly have to backtrack, locate the author’s rhythm after finally suppressing my one and then try and move forward. Now this all may sound exhausting (and it surely is), but it’s the kind of exhaustion I enjoy, even covet, since I haven’t anything of consequence to read — certainly not an assigned reading that a professor might ask about in some midterm question.

But still, I am wildly undisciplined about finishing books. At this very moment, four different books are on my side table — a novel by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a book about Catholic apologetics, a book by Robert Graves about mythology, and selections from Thucydides’ History. But because nothing is pressing me to finish any one of these, I simply sample from the one before leaving it only to come days later. And while I do finish these books from time to time, it’s not in short order. I’m okay with this.

A year ago, I was listening to a lecture about Lectio Divina, a form of Christian prayer that involves reading and memorizing Sacred Scripture as a prelude to conversation with the Lord, and the abbot giving the take spent a number of minutes arguing for how the ancients and perhaps the medievals all read aloud, not silently to themselves.

The charter text for this is when Saint Augustine witnesses Saint Ambrose reading in his study:

When [Ambrose] was not engaged (which was but a little time), he either was refreshing his body with necessary sustenance, or his mind with reading. But while reading, his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Ofttimes, when we had come (for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of those who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and, having long sat in silence (for who dared interrupt one so intent?), we were fain to depart, inferring that in the little time he secured for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamour of other men’s business, he was unwilling to be taken off. And perchance he was fearful lest, if the author he studied should express anything vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer should ask him to expound it, or to discuss some of the more abstruse questions, as that, his time being thus occupied, he could not turn over as many volumes as he wished; although the preservation of his voice, which was very easily weakened, might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But whatever was his motive in so doing, doubtless in such a man was a good one.

In my college Greek History class, I remember my professor, the late John Luster Brinkley, noting that because ancient texts were composed without spaces in between words or punctuation, the ancient readers would almost certainly sound out the text, feeling over the words and finding where one word ended and another began.

But not just with the ancients. With my own daughters, one four-years-old and the other two, I read aloud stories. What is impressive, at least to me, is that the older can with ease correct me when I miss a detail, nay, a modifier. I’ve even heard her reading to herself during car trips, even though she hasn’t formally learned to read.

[It should be noted that her ability to soak up our most fundamental Catholic prayers — the Pater Noster (Our Father), Ave Maria (Hail Mary), Saint Michael prayer, and Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) — is much more honed and perceptive.

It was not the tabella and stylus, id est, implements of writing in the ancient world, but, instead, the ear, tongue, and memory that were the primary tools of grammar and rhetoric student in the Classical (Greek and Roman) world.

With my student, especially in our earliest Latin sections, I note that saying the vocabulary, forms, and short sentences allow the brain (and heart) “the opportunity to know it thrice — once with the eyes, a second with the ear, and a third with the mind and its memory.

So to I have encouraged these history students to read selections aloud, and this encouragement comes with no shortage of reasons: first, reading aloud keeps one awake, at least usually; second, many of these works, especially letters and Gospels, were meant for public recitation; and lastly, because of the way in which the work was composed, id est, orally by the author and received by a small squad of scribes, the complexities of rhetoric, composition, logic, and argument were often played out aloud by the composer, often read back to make sure the turn-of-phrase or delivery of the argument was its most cogent, seductive, sympathetic, et cetera.

[It also may force them to turn off the television, take out the earbuds, and close down the laptop.]

The Hobbit, written by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s for his young children, would have been read aloud to them, as all children’s stories are. If this is how we best learn — orally, audibly, and with an eye to memory. It seems fitting then that we should return to the practice and even the art of reading aloud.

Or, as I put it to my students- “of the parents who did read to you when you were children” (all hands went up!), “how many of them read to you silently?”

Incipit

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Gustave Caillebotte, “Portrait of Henry Cordier” (1883)

I have decided to begin again.

There’s something fresh about beginning again. Often in teaching I find myself planning for August’s first history lectures before closing out the final grades of May. Sometimes beginning again is an excuse one gives when he does not want to finish. My reading history is littered with the beginnings of books I have begun, read some thirty-fifty pages, and then some other work captures my interest, and down goes the first.

This incipit (lit., he begins) is the second incarnation (reincarnation?) of ponticianus, which is itself a personal reboot with new ideas of my portmanteaus project. Where portmanteaus, which still exists, was a notebook of words, etymologies, phrases, clips, and longer quotes  with very little personal reflection outside the occasional update, ponticianus was intended to focus my own writing powers on original pieces, letters to the editor, and potential chapters for those books I want to sit down and write. Pontianus was a creative vestibule of my theological heart and imagination following my time in graduate school, after which I was buzzing with exciting ideas and vigor to write. Four years to the good, yet here we are.

The whole matter reminds me of my first few years out of Hampden-Sydney, my undergraduate education (2000-2004). I had planned to teach for a few years (two or three) and then return to serious, i.e., graduate, school. But two or three turned into seven years before returning to school. Sure some of that time was wasted, and many of my habits and powers of reading, writing, and argument slipped as I passed from being a 21-year-old to arriving at Duke at 28.

Ponticianus, a name taken from one of Saint Augustine’s mates in the earliest days of his conversation to Catholic Christianity, has been my online moniker for social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, as a weblog never quite took off. Part of this has to do with other matters — that I support a family that continues to grow; that I returned to teaching and coaching, or giving talks to Catholic young adults groups, teaching catechism and RCIA classes, etc. But even amid all these important matters, especially family life, there is little excuse for how little I’ve spent cultivating a life of letters.

Most of this, I am certain, is due to a few other contributing/diminishing factors: not reading newspapers (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or even Raleigh’s The News and Observer) regularly; not reading magazines, especially long-form material; and certainly spending too much time on those very social media websites listed above, and others. The list goes on.

A former student recently wrote a column for her college campus’s (consciously) Catholic newspaper within weeks of her matriculation. This example of diligence shows that writing while even keeping up the busiest of schedules boils down to writing in the nooks and crannies we find amid the busyness of everything else. Writing is simply writing, and the most important part is often beginning.

And so I begin again.