Introductory Note:

Every Thursday, we post something here that offers you a glimpse into the goings-on at Renovaré. Today, we thought we’d share a recent Faith Today column from our Director of Education, Carolyn Arends. You will notice that it mentions two Renovaré regulars—our president, Chris Hall, and one of our most beloved Renovaré Institute teaching fellows, Trevor Hudson. Enjoy!

Renovaré Team

I had just flown into San­ta Bar­bara and met up with sev­er­al col­leagues for a work­ing din­ner. While oth­ers placed their orders with the wait­er, our pres­i­dent, Chris Hall, and I both pulled out our smart phones for a quick email check. I noticed a pos­i­tive response on a logis­ti­cal mat­ter we’d been con­cerned about, so I exclaimed, Oh, good!” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it wasn’t until a nanosec­ond after I spoke that I reg­is­tered what Chris, lost in his own email rever­ie, had said a nanosec­ond before I spoke: Oh no, my friend has passed away.”

So, to recap:

My boss: Oh no, my friend has passed away.

Me: Oh, good!

For­tu­nate­ly, Chris has a great sense of humour. Once he got over the shock of our exchange, he began laugh­ing, and we still chuck­le about it every time it comes up.

Still, the moment has become emblem­at­ic for me of the dan­gers of liv­ing in a state of con­stant dis­trac­tion. Rest assured, I’m not usu­al­ly as tone deaf as I was in that iso­lat­ed inci­dent. But I sus­pect the clam­or of every­thing there is to do and think about” is drown­ing out some impor­tant music around me — leav­ing me con­sid­er­ably less able to respond in tune.

Twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry west­ern cul­ture is often pro­claimed the most dis­tract­ed in his­to­ry. Hav­ing not lived in many oth­er cen­turies, I can nei­ther con­firm or deny the asser­tion. But I can tes­ti­fy that dis­trac­tion, noise, over­whelm, hur­ry, and a ping­ing iPhone are seri­ous fac­tors in every­day life. Whether I’m try­ing to put sus­tained thought into my work, track with a mean­der­ing friend, or be still in God’s pres­ence, focused atten­tion seems cost­ly and, at times, elusive. 

I’m not alone, of course. A spate of recent busi­ness man­age­ment books (includ­ing help­ful offer­ings like Greg McKeown’s Essen­tial­ism and Cal Newport’s Deep Work) diag­nose and aim to treat our Dis­trac­tion Sick­ness. We’re urged to pare down our com­mit­ments, sched­ule sacro­sanct blocks of unin­ter­rupt­ed work time, and use social media and email only at con­trolled inter­vals. McK­e­own sug­gests that we shouldn’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly pull out our smart phones even dur­ing idle times (like in a line-up at the bank), but rather inten­tion­al­ly push against the com­pul­sion to dis­tract our­selves and devel­op new habits of still­ness, patience, and thoughtfulness.

It’s easy to think of tech­nol­o­gy as the viral agent in our Dis­trac­tion Sick­ness, and in many respects, it is. But Joshua Roth­man, a writer for The New York­er, points out that there are actu­al­ly two pos­si­ble expla­na­tions for the growth of dis­trac­tion. The first, indeed, is mate­r­i­al — we live in a soci­ety designed to dis­tract us” in relent­less (and ever-increas­ing) ways.

But Roth­man argues the sec­ond pos­si­ble cause is spir­i­tu­al — that we’re dis­tract­ed because our souls are trou­bled.” He notes that this prob­lem pre­dates the advent of the smart phone — in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry Pas­cal observed that all men’s mis­eries derive from not being able to sit in a qui­et room alone.” Of course, Roth­man could just as eas­i­ly sourced an even ear­li­er doc­u­men­ta­tion of the prob­lem. Why, my soul, are you down­cast?” asks the psalmist. Why so dis­turbed with­in me?” (Ps 42:11)

It seems that the mate­r­i­al and spir­i­tu­al are expla­na­tions not in com­pe­ti­tion, but in cahoots. Our souls are rest­less (as Augus­tine self-diag­nosed in the late-fourth cen­tu­ry). Instead of find­ing real rest in our Cre­ator, we cre­ate ever-evolv­ing dis­trac­tions, which in turn make us ever more rest­less. If we are the most dis­tract­ed cul­ture in his­to­ry, it’s like­ly because we’ve had so many cen­turies to get good at distraction.

This cycle of dis­trac­tion is so entrenched that it’s easy to think it can nev­er be changed. But before we resign our­selves to lives of scat­tered dif­fu­sion, it would be good to spend some time in Romans 6. The Apos­tle Paul reminds us repeat­ed­ly that we are no longer slaves to any form of sin. But there’s a catch. Sin no longer mas­ters us because we are now slaves to right­eous­ness (Rom 6:18). Per­haps we will nev­er shake our com­pul­sion to dis­trac­tion until we are cap­tured by some­thing more compelling. 

In my work with Ren­o­varé (an orga­ni­za­tion that exists to encour­age healthy Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion), I’ve met folks who seem to have been healed from Dis­trac­tion Sick­ness. One of them is Chris Hall, the man I men­tioned at the begin­ning of this piece. Despite (or rather because of) the many demands on his time, Chris begins every day in extend­ed silence, attend­ing to the still small voice so that he’ll be able to stay in dia­logue with God the rest of his busy day. 

Anoth­er hope­ful exam­ple is Trevor Hud­son (a South African preach­er and author who teach­es at the Ren­o­varé Insti­tute). Recent­ly I asked Trevor how he came to be so strik­ing­ly unhur­ried with peo­ple. He told me that he’d been on a con­scious jour­ney with God of learn­ing to be present—to him­self, to oth­er peo­ple, and to God. His un-dis­tract­ed­ness is a by-prod­uct of that desire to be present, rather than the oth­er way around.

I think Trevor is onto some­thing. If I can be, as Paul puts it in Romans, alive to God” (6:11)— ful­ly awake and present to his pres­ence with­in me, with­in the world he’s made, and with­in oth­er peo­ple — per­haps I can, slow­ly and sure­ly, become dead to dis­trac­tion.” And that’s the sort of death which I can appro­pri­ate­ly call good.”

Text First Published December 2016

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >