The author (physician, producer, director) Michael Crichton has written, “Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time … In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But [now] they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom.”
As if in response, writer/actor Woody Allen commented on the difficulties of aging. He said, “The only thing you can do is what you did when you were 20—because you’re always walking with an abyss right under your feet … which is to distract yourself … If I wasn’t concentrated on [distractions], I’d be thinking of larger issues. And those aren’t resolvable…”
The difficulty of nurturing a spiritual life in an age of distractions has often been noted. Professor Gordon Mikoski, commenting on the Lord’s Supper, has suggested that “In the digital age, it may be the case that the classical debates about the presence of Jesus Christ in the [Lord's Supper] have been inverted. The question with which we may have to wrestle is not ‘In what way is the Lord present in the Supper?’ Instead, the question is ‘In what way are we present?’”
And it’s not just at church that we may not be present. We can be missing in action in everyday life. Oh, we see plenty of action, but our thoughts – our mindfulness – is missing. So why is this generation so distracted?
The obvious answer is: Because we want to be. We need distractions the way an addict needs a hit. We don’t know how to live without distractions. We are living proof that T. S. Eliot was right: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Consider the evidence. One study suggests that people check their smartphones every six minutes. According to a recent survey, fifty-five percent of women would rather leave home without makeup than without their cellphone. Eleven percent of people said they would rather leave home without their pants! The cellphone is a marvelous communication tool, but its more than that: it is an ever-present distraction in time of need.
We are not passive recipients of unwanted distractions; we seek them out. We don’t want to be alone with our thoughts. Silence is our enemy. We fear it. Woody Allen is not the only one dancing around the abyss to the music of distraction.
The name of that abyss is hopelessness. Many people hold down jobs, drive their kids to school, go to the movies, plan vacations – they carry on normal lives. But all the while hopelessness stalks them like a wild animal. They can feel its presence, especially when they’re tired, especially when they are still.
And so they try never to be still. They go, go, go. They shop, buy things they don’t need, go to places they don’t care about, take pictures they’ll never look at, get addicted to pain killers or porn or booze, all because they can’t stand to be still. They sense that if they stop, hopelessness will pounce. So they keep moving.
People use distraction to self-medicate. A person without hope needs distraction the way a type-one diabetic needs insulin. The more dependent a person is on distraction, the more serious his or her hope deficiency. The soul that can’t make it through a day without multiple distractions is in desperate need of a cure – is in need of hope.
But hopelessness is a disease of the soul. Distractions may provide relief early on, but it will require higher and higher doses to keep the symptoms in check. Eventually, hopelessness will become distraction-resistant, like an infection that no longer responds to antibiotics.
Distraction treats the mind, not the spirit, but hopelessness is a condition of the spirit. It can only be cured through spiritual means. What the hopeless person needs is not another distraction but another life – the spiritual kind of life God gives to those who connect to him.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/1/2014