distracted living

The other day I found myself having to schedule a meal with someone two weeks in advance. I balked at the realization that I’ve never had to do that before. Something was wrong.

Something (someone?) convinces us that we need to be busy. There’s some inherent respect that comes from other people when we tell them we’re busy. Nobody applauds when we say we’re taking a Sabbath. Nobody applauds when we sleep in. If anything, they always ask why. But when we say we’re busy nobody even questions it. Ah, of course. Of course you’re busy. Why wouldn’t you be?

But when we’re so convinced that we need to be doing things all the time, where does that leave us?

More and more I’m realizing that busyness in itself requires inattention. It requires the fundamental belief that we can never do enough or be enough to… To what? To earn God’s favor? To be worthy as a human being? To be validated by others? When we are so obsessed by the fear that we are not doing enough (and, by extension, are not enough), we cease to be able to do anything well at all.

Before I go to sleep, I put my phone on “do not disturb,” which prevents the screen from lighting up the whole room when a notification comes through. In the morning, I turn it back off and leave the ringer on silent. But a couple days ago I forgot to disable “do not disturb” before I started my day, and I found that I went through the day a lot more calmly. I was noticeably more relaxed. Curious, I purposefully left my phone on do not disturb for the next few days.

I found that I was significantly less distracted. A black screen that isn’t constantly lighting up gives the impression that there are not other things that need our attention at this very moment. There are no emails, no texts, no social media alerts that are more important than whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish in this present moment, whether that’s a conversation with a friend across the table, a homework assignment, a chapter in a book, a prayer, or anything else.

Busyness demands we always think about the next thing on our agenda. Rather than being able to be present in the space God has given us to inhabit at any given moment, with whoever and whatever is present in that space with us, we’re constantly thinking about the next thing on the agenda. I can’t even begin to count the times I’m sitting in class and not even paying attention because I can’t stop thinking about my next meeting or that article that was due two hours ago that I forgot to edit. These other responsibilities are things I cannot do anything about when I am in class. Yet I’m convinced that they are all things I should be doing instead of being in class and giving the professor and my classmates my full attention.

Whether we like to admit it or not (and I’m certainly very uncomfortable writing about this because it seems God is calling out my very temperament) everything else is always more important then whatever’s in front of us. And that, friends, is false. It’s a lie. In fact, it’s a version of the very first lie that the devil whispered in Eve’s ear that fateful day in the Garden of Eden.

The devil told Eve that what God had given her was not enough. The devil told Eve not to be satisfied with the gifts God had already blessed her with. He turned her eyes away from God’s present “is” and into Satan’s future “what if.” And with that turning away, Eve ceased to be able to enjoy God’s present (no pun intended). She ceased to be able to be grateful for what God had already given because her eyes were turned to this other false promise of more. She thought there was more. She would never be satisfied with God’s enough because God’s enough became shadowed by Satan’s not enough.

Eve believed the lie and now so do we.

And so without even intending to do so, busyness becomes an issue of contentment and of trust. We can never be still because we feel there is always something else to achieve, something else to take care of, which leads in turn, alas, to the inability to trust God to handle all the rest when we’re simply being in a moment.

We think we need to control every little thing that’s happening or could happen, and the moment we lose control we lose our minds.

One of my English professors last semester was perhaps solely instrumental in convincing me that I needed to stop rushing about and actually pay attention to things. She spoke in class about the importance of taking a Sabbath as a time away from work and academics to simply enjoy life. She was the first person I met who understood the Sabbath to mean something more than just worshiping, praying, and fasting all day. She emphasized that our hurried lives suck the enjoyment out of everything we do, because we get so bogged down with an over-booked schedule and a whirring mind. But if we were to take just one day, not necessarily Sunday, to enjoy friendships, reading, writing, and anything else, we would find that we were more grounded and able to accomplish our latter responsibilities with a clearer mind.

She also encouraged us to really focus when we read, whether that was reading for a class or reading for leisure. “Put away the phone,” she said. “Put it in another room and just sit with the text.” When we are constantly distracted by other things, it disrupts our focus, and it takes a very long time to re-focus on the task at hand. Once we are focused, we ought not to lose that focus until the task is done. In this case, that task was reading.

Then, when it came to writing, she asked us to consider how any sort of art and creativity is an act of paying attention. Art is an exercise in slowing down, lingering over details, and discovering what’s been in front of us all along. Art requires focus, shutting out the distractions and just showing up for the art; it becomes an act of healing for ourselves and for others, a way of saying no to all these other things and yes to simply being present with the details. (I honestly don’t really know what I mean by that; maybe I’ll write another little something about it in the future.)

Let’s take some time to breathe today, friends.

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