Here are two anecdotes, and the point I want to make.
One. This past weekend I checked a spy novel out of the library, and am hooked. I knew that was a possibility when I checked it out, so I determined to only pick it up when I truly had time to spare. Amazing how much time I had to spare this week.
Two. I have to fill out some forms that though necessary, are annoying, long, and tedious. The deadline is a month away, but yesterday I had 45 minutes before leaving for a meeting, so I decided to get started. I got the file with the forms out. I sharpened two #2 pencils, filled my fountain pen with ink, found my calculator, and noticed the dirt of my two African violets were bone dry. My laptop dinged, signaling new email, so checked that, found there were four, two of which I answered and two I deleted. By then it was time to leave for the meeting. My wife claims it’s a sign of elderly attention deficit disorder but I remember doing something similar in my thirties at income tax time. It has more to do with detesting filling out those stupid forms.
And my point: not only do we live in a world brimming with distractions, but we consciously and subconsciously embrace all sorts of diversions to keep from having to face more important things.
Distractions… that’s what makes up a big part of our lives, y’know? The distractions. Lots of times, we’re like moths fluttering around a porch light. Bugs’ll swarm around that bulb, all distracted, forgetting in their minuscule insect brains that there’s something else they should be doing, like biting people or making more bugs. We’re like that, although our brains are generally larger… Human distractions are bigger, better light bulbs. We got TVs and computers. We got blinking casino lights and live bands on cruise ships playing yet another version of “Hot, Hot, Hot” until you wanna puke, but in the end, they’re all just porch lights. So we go from one bright bulb to another until we hit the bug zapper, and it’s all over. [Neal Shusterman, Ship Out of Luck]
As our lives and times get ever busier, the problem of diversion becomes greater. There is more that is urgent to divert us from what is important, more that is entertaining to divert us from what is enriching, more that is interesting to divert us from what is difficult. And perhaps most troubling of all, as Os Guinness points out in Fool’s Talk, “Even the best of pursuits can become the worst of diversions” (p. 100-101). Which means that as our lives and times get busier, the problem of diversion becomes less obvious, more difficult to notice.
At times we all eagerly embrace some diversion to keep from having to deal with something that is hard, or draining, or embarrassing, or that will challenge some cherished idea or value, or call into question some comfortable aspect of our lifestyle. This is not entirely a bad thing, since sometimes we need a diversion to keep from being overwhelmed. Too much reality at one time can be stunning beyond endurance. “No one can see me,” God told Moses, “and live” (Exodus 33:20). Not only is the full glory of ultimate reality overwhelming, being finite creatures means our ability to absorb the brokenness of the world is also limited. Only the Almighty can be exposed to all the brokenness of this sad world and not descend into cynicism or despair. Just because the media is able to bring to our attention so much so fast and so constantly doesn’t mean we should simply acquiesce in accepting it. When we sense the pull towards cynicism or despair we would be wise to be diverted from the onslaught of horror that is reported again and again each news cycle.
Still, even with that caveat, the argument can be made that by and large diversion is more a problem than a solution for most of us most of the time. Rather than tackle perennial questions, our world tends to embrace fleeting entertainments and rather than face essential and possibly convicting issues we tend to fill our calendars with activities that keep us so busy that the issues by default are passed by. And so we simply keep on, never quite getting to what we really need to get to.
To help us understand the dynamic of diversion Guinness turns to the wisdom of Blaise Pascal from Pensées:
“I have often said,” Pascal wrote, “that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.” Why? Because we all have to surround ourselves with diversion to take our minds off ultimate reality including the fact that we all will die.
Once, after spending the evening at the house of a very wealthy woman, the painter Francis Bacon came away incensed because she had plastic flowers rather than real flowers. “The whole point about flowers,” he exclaimed angrily, “is that they die.” As Pascal put it, “If man were happy, the less he were diverted the happier he would be.” But that is not how we are. “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and misery men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”
In Pascal’s time, the opportunity for a life full of diversion was the privilege of the rich and powerful. “That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king, because people are continually trying to divert him… A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.” Thus the hunt is more important than the capture, and the search than the discovery. “Men cannot be too much occupied and distracted, and that is why, when they have been given so many things to do, if they have some time off they are advised to spend it on diversion and sport, and always to keep themselves fully occupied.”
What was once the preserve of the rich and powerful is now in the hands of almost everyone in advanced modern society. The whole high-tech iWorld is so full of diversions and busy, entertaining distractions of all kinds that they have been called our “weapons of mass distraction.” (p. 100).
As Guinness mentioned, it can be difficult to identify our diversions because they may have begun not as a distraction but as an honest effort to get involved in a good thing. Perhaps I became a volunteer for some charity, or determined to be the best in my field, or began a fitness routine, or began mentoring kids at a nearby elementary school, or started teaching a class at church (or whatever) because there was a need. I wanted to a good thing, and had enough flex in time and energy that getting involved was not just a good thing but really satisfying. But that was then, and now things are a bit different. Life has changed since I began, and though I can easily list the way things have changed, it’s harder to find the time and energy to do the hard work of reconsidering what my priorities should be. Besides, if I conclude my priorities require me to rearrange my commitment, that will lead to difficult conversations, disappointment, and the knowledge that my saying No leaves a need unmet. It’s easier to just keep doing what I’m doing. Perhaps I can figure out how to be more efficient and solve the problem that way.
Even talking can be a diversion. “Wise men lay up knowledge,” the Hebrew proverb says, “but the babbling of a fool brings ruin near.” (10:14). Why? Because being addicted to hearing my own voice and opinions can keep me from hearing what I really need to hear. And yet I often prefer what I have to say more than what you might have to say.
Some distractions sneak up on us. We get a new cell phone. We bought it because we need a phone, and can’t help that it comes with new apps and possibilities and games and music and fitness measures and scheduling links and alerts and search engines and reminders, and each of these comes with the explicit promise that it will make life easier and more efficient. In a technological age can we even tell when some gadget begins to be more of a distraction than it is helpful?
Though the forms our diversions take may be modern, the problem is an old one. The Hebrew prophet Amos, for example, could see that even music could be misused.
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory,
and stretch themselves upon their couches…
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music. Amos 6:4-5
The ancient seer was not being critical of King David or the music he produced, but of how the people of God used music as an excuse not to attend to what was important. St Paul urged his young protégé, Timothy, to warn the Christians under his charge not “to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith” (1 Timothy 1:4). Some teaching in the church may be intellectually stimulating and strikingly imaginative, yet a distraction from what is spiritually edifying. Some activities, good in themselves, can be a diversion too, for which Jesus corrected his friend, Martha (Luke 10:40-42).
Here’s a trap that I must beware. It’s possible to be open to eliminating diversions in one area of life, and to then use that openness to mask how closed I am to identifying diversions in other areas. In my case, I rarely allow myself to be diverted when it comes to exploring ideas and worldviews. I like reading about the history of ideas, and take delight in thinking through various worldviews, religious and ideological convictions and their consequences. Although I was raised in a Christian family and context, I came close to rejecting the faith and am a Christian today because I became convinced it is true. My faith is an examined faith, so I do not fear difficult questions, even difficult questions for which I have no answer. I do not have answers to every question, never will and never hope to, but I do have good and sufficient reasons to believe as I do, and I am committed to put my belief into practice, even at cost. So, in the area of ideas, faith, beliefs and worldviews I actively push back against anything that might divert me from exploring them. If that gives you the impression I am open to facing my diversions, it is not the entire story. I may not be easily diverted in the arena of ideas, but the arena of personal relationships is a different story—here I am not merely easily diverted, I eagerly embrace diversion. And if one isn’t handy, I’ll gladly invent one.
I know I can’t trust myself on all this, because the stakes are too high and I’m easily diverted. I like my distractions, or at least I prefer them to whatever they are diverting me from. And more than likely I’m not even aware of all the distractions that divert my attention in less helpful directions. So, perhaps this is an issue in which community is essential. We’ll never get rid of all the diversions, but perhaps together we can at least machete a path through the worst thickets and catch a glimpse of the horizon. I am at least convinced the important things deserve more attention than my diversions allow.
Questions1. Some would argue that we live in an age in which distraction is particularly prevalent and powerful. Others would argue that embracing diversion is simply part of the human condition in a fallen and broken world. How would you respond? Why? Does it matter?
2. What forms of distraction detract from efficiency and productivity in your workplace? Do forms of diversion in your workplace seem to improve morale so well that they appear to do more good than harm?
3. “Even the best of pursuits can become the worst of diversions.” Is the use of best and worst accurate, or is it an exaggeration? How does the process from best to worst tend to occur? Can we define the crucial moment when the activity shifts from best pursuit to worst diversion? What might we do to keep this from happening?
4. Describe the least distracted person you know. What makes them so? What advantages do you perceive, and what disadvantages to their lack of distraction?
5. To what forms of diversion are you most easily susceptible? How would your spouse, or adult children, or closest friend(s) answer this question about you?
6. Why is it far easier for me to identify the things you use to distract and divert yourself than my own? How might community help us sort through this issue?
7. What fears might keep us from being willing to face our distractions? Are there ways we can help one another bear this burden?
8. Where in the church have you experienced intellectually stimulating and strikingly imaginative teaching that is nevertheless not spiritually edifying? Since those who were giving and discussing the teaching were convinced it was both edifying and important, how do you know they are not correct? What test(s) would you use? Why might some Christians be drawn to such useless (but fascinating) speculations?
9. How can useful and necessary technology subtly become a distraction? How can we guard against this danger?
10. Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues in Technopoly, “New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop” (p. 20). Explore, as objectively as possible, what you believe Postman means. Do you agree? Why or why not? To the extent Postman’s assertion is true, what it its significance to Western culture? What is its significance to the church? And what is its significance to us as individuals?
11. In a busy and fast paced world, we tend to be weary and stressed just from the ordinary requirements of life. The notion that we should set aside distractions to find time to reflect on and read about issues of fundamental and perennial importance in life can strike many people as precisely what they do not need. That doing so would probably greatly increase their stress and weariness. How would you respond?
12. In a world of great—and growing—need, it can seem inordinately self-centered to eliminate good activities in order to reflect on one’s priorities and commitments. It can seem even more inordinately self-centered if the result of this reflection leads one to decrease rather than increase their involvement in social justice concerns. How would you respond?
13. The need is not the calling. Do you agree? Why or why not? Are some needs so great as to require this statement to be repudiated?
14. C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, writes, “We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.” Discuss.
15. What important issues, topics, questions or challenges do you wish you had energy and time to pursue? What is lost by not having time to pursue them?
16. What insights can a Christian gain from reflecting on the biblical texts mentioned in this article? How are these insights helpful to life in our world of advanced modernity?
SourceNeal Shusterman quote online:
Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).