The Church Losing its Place as the Center of Attention
The Church was the one institution whose mission depended on galvanizing attention; and through its daily and weekly offices, as well as its sometimes-central role in education, that is exactly what it managed to do. At the dawn of the attention industries, then, religion was still, in a very real sense, the incumbent operation, the only large-scale human endeavor designed to capture attention and use it. But over the twentieth century, organized religion, which had weathered the doubts raised by the Enlightenment, would prove vulnerable to other claims on and uses for attention.
Despite the promise of eternal life, faith in the West declined and has continued to do so, never faster than in the twenty-first century. Offering new consolations and strange gods of their own, the commercial rivals for human attention must surely figure into this decline. Attention, after all, is ultimately a zero-sum game. But let us not get too far ahead of the story.
Dealing Effectively With Some Things
The American philosopher and psychologist William James once defined human attention as a “withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called “distraction.”
Deepening our Attention
Simone Weil, a French philosopher, theologian and activist around the time of World War II, wrote a remarkable essay in which she connects the discipline of schoolwork with that of prayer. She argues the main benefit of working hard at school is to develop our attention, which in turn helps us improve at praying.
Attention to justice should lead to the deepening of our spiritual lives. Similarly, attention to justice should lead to the deepening of our spiritual lives because as we practice attention in our approach to justice we also more attentively pray for guidance in working for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven. We need to wait on God, which is a tough balance to strike as we also need to push urgently to break down barriers of injustice.
Weil’s attention was so developed, in both academic work and in prayer, that she would sometimes have mystical experiences when she put her full attention to reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say a more common problem for most of us is making it through the Lord’s Prayer without our thoughts wandering before we get to “amen.” Fortunately, in addition to schoolwork we have many tools that can help us strengthen our practice of attention, such as reading Scripture in ways that help us listen more deeply and with others, or taking fasts from media that can distract our concentration.
Taken from Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World by Kent Annan Copyright (c) 2016 by Kent Annan. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Frequency Illusion
You decide to buy a certain kind of car, and suddenly you see it everywhere. A friend recommends an obscure movie to you, and by the end of the week, three more people have mentioned it. You find out you’re having a baby and now you’re surrounded by pregnant women in every shopping aisle, church classroom, and train station. It’s not just you, and it is a real thing. So real, in fact, that there are actual names for it.
Known as Blue Car syndrome, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, this is when we hear or experience something and suddenly it seems to appear everywhere. It’s also called frequency illusion, which, of course, implies these things are not, in actuality, happening or appearing more often than normal, but because they have been brought to your attention, your brain notices them more often.
Losing to A Goldfish
Cue a terrifying trend: our attention span is dropping with each passing year. In 2000, before the digital revolution, it was twelve seconds, so it’s not exactly like we had a lot of wiggle room. But since then it’s dropped to eight seconds.
To put things in perspective, a goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds.[i]
Yes. That’s right. We’re losing, to goldfish.
But the odds are not in our favor. There are literally thousands of apps and devices intentionally engineered to steal your attention. And with it your money.
Reminder: Your phone doesn’t actually work for you. You pay for it, yes. But it works for a multibillion-dollar corporation in California, not for you. You’re not the customer; you’re the product. It’s your attention that’s for sale, along with your peace of mind.[ii]
Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
[i] Kevin McSpadden, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” Time, May 14, 2015, http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish.
[ii] This idea comes from Seth Godin’s great blog post “When Your Phone Uses You,” Seth’s Blog (blog), September 30, 2016, https://seths.blog/2016/12/when-your-phone-uses-you.
The Range of What We Think and Do
In this short poem, the psychologist Daniel Goleman (the developer of the concept of Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.)) builds on the work of R. D. Laing’s “knots.” The poem is a helpful reminder that our awareness is the limitation of our understanding. Expanding our awareness helps us avoid painful blind spots:
The range of what we think and do
Is limited by what we fail to notice
And because we fail to notice
That we fail to notice
There is little we can do
Until we notice
How failing to notice
Shapes our thoughts and deeds?
Singular, Holistic Absorbtion
Presence is experienced as a unitary whole. Think, for example, about the experience of sitting on the top of a hill, far from the polluting lights of a city, gazing at a dark, starry sky. Unless you are an astrophysicist or an astronomy buff, your experience will not likely be one of thought and analysis but of singular, holistic absorption. You will experience the presence of the starry sky, not your thoughts about it.
Targeting Human Attention
Human attention is a zero-sum game. At some point we must close all our screens and fall asleep—which makes sleep the enemy of digital spectacle makers (and sleep was named chief competitor by the CEO of the video-streaming giant Netflix).
Entertainment giants win when they can keep us bingeing shows late into the night, which is why digital video giant Hulu teamed up with eye-drop maker Visine to create an ad about how the two work together to help us cram more video into our already eye-abusing addiction to screens all morning, day, and night.
What is Prayer?
On a walking pilgrimage to Assisi in Italy, the writer Patricia Hampl began to make a list in answer to the question, What is prayer? She wrote down a few words. Praise. Gratitude. Begging/pleading/cutting deals. Fruitless whining and pulling. Focus. And then the list broke off, for she discovered that prayer only seems like an act of language: “Fundamentally it is a position, a placement of oneself.”
She went on to discover that “prayer as focus is not a way of limiting what can be seen; it is a habit of attention brought to bear on all that is.” Ah, a habit of attention. Be still. In that focus, all else comes into focus. In that rift in my routine, the universe falls into alignment.
What We Ignore & What We Pay Attention To
We ignore so much stuff for a simple reason: if we didn’t, we’d quickly be overwhelmed, our brains flooded until they seized up. Depending on the kind of information, it takes our brains some amount of time to process it, and when we are presented with too much at once we begin to panic, like a waiter who has too many orders shouted at him at once.
But our capacity to ignore is limited by another fact: we are always paying attention to something. If we think of attention as a resource, or even a kind of currency, we must allow that it is always, necessarily, being “spent.”
There is no saving it for later. The question is always, what shall I pay attention to? Our brains answer this question with varying degrees of volition, from “shhh—I’m reading this” to letting our minds wander in the direction of whatever might draw it in, whether in the corner of our screen or along some road we are walking.
When Scandales Become Blasé
In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson describes what has become a reality of modern-day life-scandals happen every day, and no-one seems to even notice:
After settling into my tech-savvy dining booth at JFK international airport, I heard “breaking news” in stereo. News blaring–flat screens scattered throughout the terminal announced CNN had obtained a tape of a conversation between Donald Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen discussing how they planned to buy the rights to a Playboy model’s story of an alleged affair.
I looked around the terminal, scanning gates and bars filled with TVs. No one paid attention. Not a single person seemed to be concerned that evidence had surfaced indicting an American president of an extramarital affair, with a Playmate, which he tried to cover up by paying her off. Irrespective of political affiliations, this news should grab our attention.
Not a head turned. Why? Perhaps it’s because we’ve become so accustomed to public crises. Just this week I came across the vicious ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya, the massacre of six American women and three children in Mexico, an impudent religious leader hurling racial insults, impeachment hearings in DC, and a college admission scandal. If I’m honest, I’m kind of overloaded, even numb to these atrocities.
Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Attention. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!