At this point, it’s trite to say that we live in a world of distractions. Trite, but true. As with all such things, the trouble is learning to breathe new life into a truth that has become old and stale, ossified through the pressurized heat of repetition. Indeed, that we carry people with us after we die, that those who live by the sword often die by it, are no less true in spite of their green-hued, once-copper dullness.
So it is with distraction. Let’s say I take a walk to get away from time spent working, bent over before my computer or staring at the fine print in another book of medieval historical criticism (something to which, I’m sure, nearly all of you can relate). On that walk, I may bring with me my phone and my earbuds, immediately plugging myself into the digital apparatus as I set foot on the sidewalk outside of my house. Now, instead of mind-clearing freedom—space to breathe—I find multiple sources competing for my attention. I might open Facebook and scroll through my notifications, finding I have to respond to persons A, B, and C on totally unrelated topics. All the while some song by Blur or Stravinsky is—even if kept at a conservative volume—rising up into my head, taking over from my Facebooking if I’m lucky enough to not scroll endlessly through statuses and memes. My feet have kept moving the entire time—not without labor, as I’m walking aimlessly, just trying to get away. If I’m a smoker, I might have a vape or a cigarette demanding my unreflective attention at intervals, involving my free, non-phone hand in this chaotic dance of human parts. I might see a tree and stare for a moment, if my eyes are lucky enough to wander up from the never-ending flow of tweets across my iPhone screen. Text messages roll in or entice me to respond, if I’ve been self-disciplined enough to avoid answering them while working.
This goes on for, at most, perhaps 15 minutes. It’s not a long time in the scope of one’s day, but this was, after all, supposed to be a time for head-clearing relaxation. And what do I have to show for it? By the time I return to my couch to read, I’ve hopelessly squandered my attention beyond all recognition and whatever collection of fractured self I’d managed while reading or writing has been reduced to a great trash heap of ephemera. Now getting back to work will be a chore not merely because I have to abandon recreation (if we can call it that) but also because my mind is simply not, well, simple; it’s totally left behind any notion of singular responsibility. I’ve probably seen five texts and e-mails that worry me, or, at minimum, invite quick response. Knowing this weighs heavily on me; I begin planning out when I’ll have time to get back to people even before I’ve done any of the work that must be done before I can get back to them. The song(s) I’ve listened to still ring in my head as memes or statuses have provoked now-intrusive thoughts. Since my schedule is off balance, I’m tempted to take a “real break” and watch an episode of Frasier while I eat some cereal—another 30 minutes down the drain if I’m not careful.
Simone Weil talks about attention. Her definition is rather technical, but that needn’t concern us here. The essence of her point is that the truest concentration makes possible the greatest love, not merely intellectually, but holistically. We do things well so that we might learn to focus—even quiet—ourselves such that we may bring ourselves to bear upon whatever problem or task lies before us. This is certainly true with regard to my everyday life—not at all helped along by the ubiquitous nature of modern technology—but it is even more so of my prayer life, a fact that Simone Weil saw only too well. She writes:
[The] faculty of attention […when…] directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.
She goes on:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.