Defined by Distraction 

Super­fi­cial­i­ty is the curse of our age. The des­per­ate need today is not for a greater num­ber of intel­li­gent peo­ple, or gift­ed peo­ple, but for deep peo­ple.
—Richard J. Foster 

My dad wrote this quote in 1978. Some 40 years lat­er, it feels as rel­e­vant as ever. Yet, the reign­ing emper­or of curs­es that threat­ens the growth of our souls has a new leader — distraction.

If we were able to look at human his­to­ry in its entire­ty, I won­der what would be the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of our present era? I won­der if we would be the only ones liv­ing with extreme anx­i­ety and stress for rea­sons oth­er than basic sur­vival? Would we be the ones busi­ly scur­ry­ing about while spend­ing all of our down time star­ing at box­es for enter­tain­ment and human” interaction? 

It’s almost nor­mal to care­less­ly rush from one thing and place to the next at such a hur­ried pace that we bare­ly have time to rest or eat. Fill­ing all of the emp­ty spaces of our days with things that keep us from qual­i­ty con­nec­tions with God and oth­ers has become a cul­tur­al­ly accept­ed addic­tion with fright­en­ing spir­i­tu­al and rela­tion­al consequences.

So few of us seem able to live delib­er­ate­ly paced lives ful­ly present to God and others.

I’ve come up with a state­ment to mir­ror my dad’s:

Dis­trac­tion is the curse of our age. The des­per­ate need today is not for a greater num­ber of effi­cient peo­ple, or busy peo­ple, but for present people.”

Yet, I love my dis­trac­tions. Not only are they fun and inter­est­ing, they work so well to pro­tect me from feel­ing any­thing unpleas­ant. Read­i­ly avail­able enter­tain­ment and crowd­ed sched­ules eas­i­ly keep sad­ness and bore­dom at bay. Not to men­tion how the rush of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty from check­ing a mess of things off my to-do list not only builds my sense of self, but gives me a pro­found feel­ing of worth and val­ue. Nev­er mind what God says about me. When I’m rush­ing around, not allow­ing myself rest, when I’m busy and effi­cient, the world says I’m important.

Mak­ing Space

Spir­i­tu­al growth is near­ly impos­si­ble with­out silence and space. God does­n’t seem in the habit of bull­doz­ing his way through all the diver­sions we choose to use to fill our lives. Instead, patient­ly he waits for us to choose to be present.

For me to be present I have to slow down. The solu­tion is one sim­ple word — NO. Every­thing I say yes to comes with a no to some­thing else, and so often the things I end up say­ing no to are the things most impor­tant to me: spir­i­tu­al life, rela­tion­ships, health, bal­ance, or the ener­gy need­ed to faith­ful­ly com­plete my cur­rent com­mit­ments. Vig­i­lance to guard space and be ful­ly present to what is sacred is required. The busy­ness of my life is usu­al­ly the result of deci­sions I made months ago. In a sense, not tak­ing the time to prop­er­ly order my life is a sort of lazi­ness. It requires great courage to not put off tough deci­sions of what I will and won’t do.

I can­not think of a greater way to bring about gen­uine trans­for­ma­tion in the spir­i­tu­al life of the Church than to become a peo­ple who say no to busy­ness, hur­ry, and dis­trac­tion, and will­ing­ly orga­nize our lives in such a man­ner to be ful­ly present to God and each oth­er, liv­ing a life learn­ing to love well. Of course this would require us to face the nor­mal emo­tions of the human expe­ri­ence, view­ing bore­dom as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dwell in deep places and to grow. It means choos­ing to inten­tion­al­ly struc­ture our lives in healthy ways. It means say­ing no to good things, even things we real­ly want to do. 

As soon as we start say­ing no, our fear of dis­ap­point­ing oth­ers and our­selves is revealed. We are forced to con­front all of the ways we have placed and formed our iden­ti­ties on what we do rather than who we are.

For some, this is too painful a process and they will quick­ly retreat to the com­fort a ful­ly dis­tract­ed life affords. How­ev­er, if we allow God to ten­der­ly love us through the real­i­ty of our bro­ken­ness, we will become able to con­fess and sur­ren­der the greed and lust of want­i­ng to do more and be more. Set­ting bound­aries is fac­ing our own mor­tal­i­ty and accept­ing the fact that God designed humans with lim­i­ta­tions. With a sort of play­ful joy, I con­clude some places to vis­it and new projects to start will just have to wait for eternity.

Of course, for some, mere sur­vival can demand push­ing our­selves into unhealthy dis­tract­ed lives, but even in the midst of a mul­ti­tude of jobs, car­ing for chil­dren and par­ents, there are choic­es that can help us to be more present.

My Experiences

This sum­mer my eight-year-old son and I vis­it­ed Col­orado to hike a 14,000 foot moun­tain with my dad. Hav­ing three gen­er­a­tions on Mount Evans was so spe­cial. Much of my task for that hike was to teach my son how to pace him­self up the moun­tain so he would­n’t burn out, not an easy task for an ener­getic boy! In order to han­dle such a steep hike, it is crit­i­cal that you learn to move at a sus­tain­able pace. The alti­tude is bru­tal, and if you go too fast, you’ll repeat­ed­ly tire and sum­mit­ing becomes extreme­ly painful if not impos­si­ble. It’s sur­pris­ing and quite dif­fi­cult for new peo­ple to learn just how slow a liv­able hik­ing pace on a moun­tain of this size is.

Two things always occur when I find my pace on a moun­tain. First, I’m amazed, and even relieved, at how achiev­able long climbs up a steep pitch become. The seem­ing­ly unat­tain­able becomes pos­si­ble when I move at a liv­able pace. Sec­ond, I begin to notice things I did­n’t see before: the abun­dance of small and intri­cate flow­ers that push up among the suc­cu­lent plants scat­tered about, gen­tle yet strong, thriv­ing in the harsh­est of cli­mates; the curve of the sky; the artistry of speck­led min­er­als locked with­in the boul­ders and stones. The metaphors for life are eas­i­ly revealed. What beau­ty and lessons do I miss out on when I’m mov­ing at a fran­tic pace fill­ing my days with dis­trac­tions? Just how do I find and main­tain my pace in life?

I’ve climbed a num­ber of moun­tains and each time find­ing my pace is uncom­fort­able and often painful. Fac­ing our­selves and our lim­i­ta­tions can feel lone­ly and even hope­less. How­ev­er, on the oth­er side I begin to feel more human, like wak­ing up from a dream, and won­der­ing why I don’t slow down more often.

In order to find my pace in life, the first thing I have to do is throw away every­thing I think I know about effi­cien­cy and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. I have a feel­ing God’s math on these mat­ters is quite dif­fer­ent than mine. Yet, I am bom­bard­ed with thoughts that things need to get done. How do I tease out what is a real respon­si­bil­i­ty and what is a self-imposed responsibility?

I keep think­ing that if I could only get caught up on things, get my house and life arranged in such a way, then I could slow down. But, I don’t think that’s the answer. I have to learn how to slow down now, in the midst of a nag­ging to-do list. 

This last month of slow­ing down is bring­ing a new peace in the present moment. I find I rather enjoy walk­ing slow­ly. Arriv­ing at a meet­ing ear­ly is a lit­tle awk­ward, but much bet­ter than the anx­i­ety of rush­ing around. I put a cap on how often I can check my email. Sur­pris­ing­ly this was extreme­ly help­ful as my phone makes it way too easy for me live dis­tract­ed. At times I can see the ben­e­fits of my com­put­er pro­cess­ing infor­ma­tion at a slow pace, it gives me a small break, a space to breathe and pray. (But most­ly it just frus­trates me.) Ulti­mate­ly, few­er things got checked off my to-do list this month. I’m not sure how I feel about that. But, I did take more space to be with my kids and have start­ed mak­ing some help­ful changes in my life regard­ing respect­ing my lim­i­ta­tions. I’m remind­ed that what we do in the short-term with the dis­ci­plines almost always has its results in the long-term.

I don’t think I’m very good at the dis­ci­pline of slow­ing. But, I try. I try to become med­i­ta­tive in my writ­ing and in answer­ing emails. I try to stop com­part­men­tal­iz­ing my life. I remind myself that it’s okay to leave some things undone, that ulti­mate­ly I’ll die with an unfin­ished to-do list and the world will get by just fine. 

There will always be seem­ing­ly pro­duc­tive and good mat­ters that beg for my atten­tion and that can eas­i­ly over­take all that is impor­tant in life. I remem­ber that I am not a slave to my to-do list nor to my tech­nol­o­gy. They are there to serve me. And so I ques­tion whether or not dis­trac­tions that feel enter­tain­ing are actu­al­ly good for me, or whether they sim­ply assist in keep­ing me from hav­ing to deal with grow­ing in patience or learn­ing more about my brokenness.

God is in the habit of using the dis­ci­plines to trans­form the human per­son­al­i­ty, but it takes time, lots of time. As we find our pace in life and in our lit­tle spir­i­tu­al prac­tices, God is ever eager to help and guide. Wait­ing with a still small voice wel­com­ing us into a life ruled by his decrees of love and good­ness, and a life that func­tions well — a King­dom life.

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Originally published October 2014