Monday, May 13, 2019

Distraction Sickness

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”

The children in my boyhood neighborhood played outside all summer.  It was the era before cell phones, so our resourceful parents devised all manner of ways to call us home for dinner.  The Lux family blew a whistle.  Using different toot cadences, they could call all their boys at once or any one of the three individually.  The Emerson’s had an old hand-held school bell and my mother rang it from the front porch so we could hear it.  Not only did we know its sound, but so did every other kid on the block.  “Keith, I hear your dinner bell.  You had better go home.”

“My sheep hear my voice.”  There are times I wish Jesus’ voice was as easy to discern as my mother’s call to supper.  We listen for his voice to be our moral compass, a source of compassion, a beacon of guidance, a clarion of discernment, and a purveyor of healing.  In a sense, listening for God’s voice has never been easy.  Yes, on some occasions it is as clear and unmistakable as three loud, long blasts from the Lux’s whistle.  But most often it is much more elusive. 

It isn’t so much that God doesn’t want to speak to us.  It has more to do with our inability to be attentive.  Being attentive to God’s voice requires time and space for sustained focus.  It needs self-emptying.  It demands we cease doing and simply be.  And so much of our culture degrades our capacity to do these things.

William James, the 19th Century philosopher, held we are what we experience and we experience those things to which we give our attention.  Andrew Sullivan, in an essay on ‘distraction sickness’ in The New York Magazine, points out our attention is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.  Ads, smartphones, apps, social media, and the internet produce an endless parade of distractions to which we are incredibly susceptible. 

There is immense competition for our attention.  There is an entire industry selling its ability to capture it.  The things that ‘pop up’ on your screen don’t just happen by accident.  Politicians, who once garnered our support by articulating positions and policy ideas, now desperately vie for our attention.  Outlandish statements and bizarre behavior have become the new pathway to electability because more and more they are the only way to get noticed. 

“My sheep hear my voice.”  “You are what you pay attention to.”  A 2015 study of young adults determined the average person uses a smartphone five hours a day, engaging it a whopping 85 times, most of which last less than 30 seconds.  What does this tell you about our ability to pay attention?  Just as revealing, the study found participants far underestimated how much they used their phone.  It just doesn’t seem like we spend 1/3 of our waking hours using a device that did not even exist a decade ago, but we do.

Consider the uniqueness of what we are doing right now.  For about 12 minutes, each of you is going to sit in one place, not look at you cell phone, listen to a person speak (who is unaccompanied by pictures, video, or a scrolling series of headlines and stock market updates underneath).  There are no panelists shouting down each other.  No slickly produced PowerPoint presentation.  It is just me and my words bathed in the light of our timeless and familiar church imagery.  I dare say there will be nothing else in your week even close to this.  Paying attention to a sermon has never been easy, but it is especially challenging in an era when we cultivate multitasking and accept as normal the fragmentation of our focus.

Every minute you sit listening to me 500 new profiles are being created on Facebook, 150,000 messages are sent, and 3,000,000 new comments are posted.  Every minute you listen to me 400 hours of video is being uploaded onto YouTube.  The abundance of information available far exceeds our ability to consume it.  And it is not just social media.  I remember a medical professional once stating she would have to invest 200 hours a week reading the latest articles published in professional journals covering her field just to stay current with the latest research. 

The time you have and the attention you can give is a scarce resource.  More and more, learning how to manage and allocate these resources is an essential life skill as well as a spiritual necessity.

Andrew Sullivan’s article on distraction is titled “I Used to be a Human Being.”  He describes in it the soul-crushing experience of making a living as a political blogger spending almost all of his waking time on-line responding to the endless seeping of ‘breaking news.’  This is what he came to learn:

I spent many hours communicating with others as a disembodied voice, but my real life and body were still here.  I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated… [e]very hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world.  Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter.  Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.  Sometimes I walk down the street, and I’m the only person not plugged in… No one is where they are.

After coming to this realization, Sullivan decided to make a change; to go in a new direction for him, but one as old as the dawn of the human spirit.  He signed up to be a part of a week-long silent retreat focusing on the art of meditation.  He reports it took a few days for his brain to ‘settle down’ and his body to be comfortable relaxing.  He then began to notice things that had escaped him for some time… the sound of birds singing, the feeling of the breeze on his skin, the changes in the quality of light as late afternoon gives way to early evening.  For the first time in a long time he began to feel as if his body and his mind existed in the same place at the same time. 

Sullivan said his immediate impulse was to grab his phone, take a picture, and post it online.  Alas, he had been forced to surrender it at the start of the retreat so all he could do was simply be in the moment and live with what he was experiencing.  This, he came to realize, is exactly what he needed.

As the week unfolded Sullivan became more aware of long-held painful memories he had suppressed for years.  He wanted an instant antidote, but came to understand this too is a false way forward created by our modern, make-it-happen-at-microwave-speed world.  Some things, he learned, require time.

“My sheep hear my voice.”  Sullivan states something fascinating in his article:

[M]odernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action.  The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

Some churches have gone all in with an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach.  They make their worship services as showy and as glitzy as possible.  Big sound, bold visuals, bright lights, and blazing personalities.  Their worship has the pace and the energy of the latest Avengers movie.  But, as the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, she was not looking for a ‘cool’ church to compete with the culture, she deeply desired a place she could encounter ancient religious practices in a meaningful way.  Essentially, she, like Sullivan, sought a place where distractions are minimized in order to provide a place and a space to listen for the voice of Jesus.

Last Sunday we read the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  He heard the voice of Jesus only after being knocked off his horse and blinded by an intense light.  For most of us, nothing this dramatic will ever happen.  It is not that Jesus does not want to speak to us.  He does.  It’s just that his voice is soft and calm and is best heard in stillness and quiet – the very things our culture (to borrow a popular social media term) has blocked.

Still, we desperately want to know our lives matter, and not just because we got 100 reactions to our latest post.  We want to know someone cares about us for something deeper, more unique, and more enduring than purchases we might make because we are bombarded with pop-up ads some algorithm has determined should be enticing to us.  We want to know that life has meaning so grand it cannot be captured in 144 characters.  We want a purpose more significant than proselytizing the unknown masses to our particular position on the news cycle’s most recent dust-up.

To the best of my recollection I never missed a dinner as a child.  No matter what was going on, my ear was tuned to hear that bell (or others heard it and quickly brought it to my attention).  This for me is a wonderful image of a spiritual skill we all seek to cultivate.  None of us wants to lose focus on what really matters.  We want the ability briefly to gaze down life rabbit holes and then walk on.  Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”  In life, you are what you pay attention to.  Thank you for paying attention to me these last few minutes.