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.”

Originally published in Faith Today, Jan/Feb 2017

Photo by Pat Whelen on Unsplash

Text First Published December 2016 · Last Featured on Renovare.org May 2023