David Marno: How Christians Can Deal With Distraction

Should we be more patient with those we view as distracted? Photo by Serhii Bobyk/Shutterstock.com

A constant complaint in our unpredictable world is that we live in an age of distraction.

I am quick to label students who stare at their phones in my class distracted; politicians dismiss inconvenient questions by calling them a distraction; and when we find distraction in ourselves, we blame it on technology. In other words, we think of attention as a rare and valuable commodity, and we assume that distraction is a problem with an identifiable cause.

Consider for a moment, what would a medieval monk or a 17th-century preacher make of our complaints about modern distraction?

I argue, they would, in all likelihood, find them strange. To be sure, they too felt distracted, all the time. But, as my research on premodern Christianity shows, they thought of distraction as the human condition itself. Above all, they maintained a remarkably patient attitude toward it.

Are attention and distraction similar?

I offer an account of this Christian prehistory of attention and distraction in my book, “Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention.” Although I wrote the book as a Renaissance scholar, while working on it I was constantly reminded of the topic’s relevance in contemporary life. What has intrigued me most then and now is the cultural values we associate with distraction and attention.

The dichotomy between good attention and bad distraction is so fundamental that it is written into the very language we use to talk about attending. Consider the phrase “I pay attention.” It implies that attention is valuable, a type of currency we deliberately and consciously invest in. When I pay attention, I am in control of my action, and I am aware of its value.

Now compare this with the phrase “I am distracted.” Suddenly we are dealing with a passive and vulnerable subject who suffers an experience without doing much to contribute to it.

But there are reasons to question this dichotomy. Students who are “distracted” by their phones could just as well be described as paying attention to their Facebook feed; the question that the politician dismisses as a distraction probably calls attention to a matter that actually deserves it.

Do attention and distraction refer to the same behavior? Photo by StockLite/Shutterstock.com

In other words, it is reasonable to ask whether attention and distraction are simply two morally and culturally charged terms referring to what in reality is the same behavior. We label this behavior distraction when we disapprove of its objects and objectives; and we call it attention when we approve of them.

One would expect this moralizing discourse of attention and distraction to be especially prevalent in Christianity. In popular imagination, medieval monks shut out the outside world, and Reformation preachers have issued stern warnings to their congregation to resist the distractions of life.

But while it is true that historical Christianity took distraction seriously, it also had a nuanced and often remarkably tolerant attitude toward it.

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Source: Religion News Service