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.

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