Guarding Your Attention
Pacing yourself for the marathon ahead.
Late last week, I sat down to write a news roundup.
And I just couldn’t do it. The sheer weight of the state of the world fell upon me, and I felt a literal heaviness in my heart. After an otherwise good day, reviewing the headlines sucked the life out of me. I spent the rest of the night alone, apart from my family, and thoroughly checked out.
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I’ve realized that part of living the prepared life is guarding your attention. While it’s important to have a sense of what’s going on in the world, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the horrors going on every day.
We have to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m personally of the opinion that we’re in the beginning stages of things becoming a lot worse, and if we let the weight of the world crush us now we’re not even going to get out of the gate.
A friend had sent me a paper by Fr. Maximos Constas called “Attend to Thyself: Attentiveness and Digital Culture”, and needing a reason to procrastinate, I decided to sit down and read it. It turned out to be highly relevant to what I was feeling, and I’m willing to bet you struggle with this too.
I’ll offer some excerpts from the conclusion with commentary.
The fallen human mind is fragmented, prone unceasingly to distractions, and scattered across a troubled infinity of disconnected thoughts and sensations. Our minds are always elsewhere than our bodies. Rather than working to alleviate this constitutive weakness, we have built a culture of organized distractions, aiding and abetting the mind in its fallen condition.
The smartphone with its constant nonsensical notifications keeps us in a permanent state of confusion. We never know what to pay attention to and what’s important. We suffer a constant fear of missing out, of not knowing what the latest thing is.
Of course, this didn’t start with the smartphone, but the television. Have you ever tried having a conversation in a room with a TV blaring? It’s nearly impossible to not stare at the thing.
It can be argued that the computer itself is a fallen mind, a powerful extension of our own dubious desires, created after our own image. Lingering unregenerately in a realm of illusions; mesmerized by the images flitting about on our computer screens, we become “dull, predatory flies buzzing on the chamber window,” desperate to consume all the futility of the world.
I—and many of you—are bad about “doomscrolling,” where we constantly scroll social media to see what the latest terrible thing is. After a while it becomes an addiction.
Constas’ argument is interesting and inherently theological. As man made God in his image, man made computer in his own (flawed) image. A reflection of a reflection that mirrors our own depraved desires. “If it bleeds, it leads.”
You don’t even have to be a Christian to recognize this. It’s the very theme of Charlie Brooker’s show, “Black Mirror,” which portrays technology as a dark reflection of our worst impulses.
It’s also a key theme of David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” in which a sleazy TV station president (played by James Woods) is caught up in a pirate broadcast of snuff films, which turns out to be a brainwashing signal that gives the viewers brain cancer. Woods’ character then becomes a pawn in a shadow war, being brainwashed by both sides to eliminate their enemies.
Yet we are not the predators, but the prey. We are not the users of information technologies and social media, but rather are being used, manipulated, and exploited by them.
Much like Woods in Videodrome, we are programmed by these technologies. Both social media and video game companies hire psychologists to design their products to be maximally addicting.
Take a cue from tech leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Sundar Pichai, who all strictly limit or limited their children’s screen access. Jobs never let his own children touch an iPad.
There’s a lesson there.
In our culture of distractions, public and private spaces are saturated with technologies designed to arrest and appropriate our attention; our interior mental lives, like our bodies, are merely resources to be harvested by powerful economic interests (Crawford suggests that distractibility is to the mind what obesity is to the body).
Maybe the most egregious example of this are those infernal screens now embedded into every gas pump. Usually, if you mash enough buttons around the screen you can at least cut off the noise though not the screen.
What’s interesting is that while everything has grown more expensive, TVs continue to get cheaper and cheaper. Why is that?
Our focus, then, should not be on technology and digital culture alone, but on the interests and motivations that guide their design and promote their dissemination into every aspect of our life.
The Crawford he mentions is Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, who proposes old-fashioned manual labor as a solution to our problems.
Of course, Fr. Constas recommends prayer, specifically repeating the Jesus Prayer favored by the Orthodox (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or the shorter, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”) as a sort of mantra to guard against these influences.
This is all a long-winded way of saying “touch grass.” Of course, there are all sorts of tools to guard your attention: the Focus mode in iOS, meditation apps, etc. The key is that you take advantage of them and make a conscious effort to guard your own attention, especially if you’re despairing for the state of the world.
It’s springtime. Make a conscious effort to get outside, get some sun, and connect with other people. I’m not telling you to stick your head in the sand, but you have to protect your own sanity and find happiness where you can.
Because things only get worse from here.
It’s a legitimate academic paper, but the only copy I can find online is on a weird website covered in skulls. I was sent the original PDF.
This is a contentious issue in Christianity, because in Matthew 6:7, Jesus instructs the crowd, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
However, Jesus Himself repeated prayers during his Agony in the Garden. In Matthew 26:39, he prays, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” In Matthew 26:42, He prays the very similar, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done,” and then in Matthew 26:44, He “prayed the third time, saying the same words.”
Most evangelicals consider repeated prayers to be “vain repetitions,” but what’s interesting is that the Orthodox have the opposite view: that the spontaneous and often rambly prayers of evangelicals are in fact “vain repetitions” with “much speaking.”