It has only recently become clear to me how distraction-filled is my life. No matter what I’m doing at any moment, there are always a bushel of other tasks and subjects clamoring for my attention. Their amassed volume can become quite loud. Perhaps I’m not exceptional in this regard. Perhaps every man that lives is continually beset by innumerable, persistent bids for his attention, regardless of his current focus. God knows, the advertising industry plays its part.
Yet in this age of the Internet, the distractions have multiplied to a threatening, possibly lethal level. I was reflecting on that before I left for this morning’s Mass, and it strikes me as a topic important enough for a few words.
About three years ago, Mark Butterworth decided to address the most fundamental of all theological or epistemological questions in a fictional setting. The resulting novel, I Like The White World, is a remarkable, important document. It’s not perfect – no creation of mortal hands can be perfect – but nevertheless it’s a step toward a profound wisdom that I’ve never seen anyone else, lay or clerical, approach with determination.
The question is one that Christians will recognize from the Gospels:
Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews? Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me? Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate said unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and said unto them, I find in him no fault at all. [John 18:33-38]
What is truth? Not “What is the truth of this matter,” nor “What is truth as an ontological entity distinct from other ontological entities,” but “What is truth” in its indivisible, immutable wholeness?
The human enterprise reduces to a few very simple quests:
- The quest for survival.
- The quest for love and acceptance.
- The quest for stature among one’s fellows.
- The quest for knowledge beyond all uncertainty: for Truth.
If we omit the activities we embrace merely to “pass the time,” everything any man does, has ever done, or will ever do is done in pursuit of one of those quests. Indeed, our actions to secure survival, acceptance, and stature would be pointless were we to do nothing in pursuit of Truth...and among the greatest tragedies of our age is the susceptibility so many have displayed to the preachments of “those who have not joy” (C. S. Lewis) that there is no such thing as Truth.
The usual avenue of attack is on the limitations of our senses: our ability to observe objective reality. These are real limitations. Even our instruments, as clever as the best of them are, have limits of precision. Our knowledge of the world around us, therefore, will always be approximate: an asymptotic and never-ending quest. Therefore, there will always be some doubt that we “really know” some of what we know about temporal reality.
I submit that this property of our nature, and of Nature itself, is a gift of two sorts. First, it gives us an inherently unending task to pursue: an important thing for a species with an inquiring nature that must feel itself to be advancing at all times. Second, it causes us to reach beyond perceptible reality for a foundation solid enough to uphold both temporal reality and our intuitions about it. It makes us look beyond the metaphysically given to what can only be grasped through our private, inner senses.
The distractions to which I alluded nonspecifically in the opening segment are annoying to me because their lures are so attractive. They beckon not with duty but with delight: amusement, entertainment, even sensory pleasure. But to the extent that they divert me from higher priorities, what they offer is illusory.
Now, I’ll grant without argument that no one can concentrate absolutely on a single “highest priority” until it’s been fully satisfied...at least, not if the goal is at all difficult to achieve. Everyone tires. Those whose goals are especially demanding tire faster than others. To turn from a Quest! to a little light entertainment for refreshment can be an act of self-preservation. But when distractions become the whole warp and weft of life – when one passes one’s time entirely in finding ways to “pass the time” – something is seriously wrong.
Those badly afflicted with “distractionitis” can fail to recognize what they’ve done to themselves. And I emphasize that this is always done to oneself. No one can distract another person against his will. That’s why we have the word “No.”
To one straining to hear the inner voice – the one that speaks of eternal and permanent things beyond the reach of our temporal senses – distractions, even those one might value at other times as important respites from a more serious quest, can be a terrible enemy.
For a conclusion, let’s have a little from The Screwtape Letters:
Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy's!) you don't realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.
The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear What He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said "Quite. In fact much too important to tackle it the end of a morning", the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added "Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind", he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic". He is now safe in Our Father's house.
Remember that Screwtape is a demon, and a rather accomplished one. To him “Our Father” means Satan. The above illustration of the use of distractions not to silence the inner voice but to deflect one’s attention from it is among the most valuable bits of this exceptionally valuable book.
If you’re a Christian, or one honestly undecided about ultimate things and eager to know more, setting aside time for contemplation and walling out distractions as forcefully as necessary is a critical step. Remember, also, that many agencies of distraction have a certain priority of their own: spouses, children, jobs, important or enjoyed home duties, and the like. These are not evils, but lesser goods. As lesser goods, they should not be permitted to arrogate so much of your attention that none is left for your private ponderings. A healthy psyche requires some time – possibly more than we think – spent alone and in silence, thinking about what our eyes cannot see, our ears cannot hear, and our fingers cannot touch.
“To hear, one must be silent.” – Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea
May God bless and keep you all.