Writing in the journal First Things, Joseph Claire examines one the chief obstacles to both our intellectual and spiritual lives: a perpetual state of digitally induced distraction. Observing the ubiquitous glow emanating from digital devices during a chapel service at his university, “distracted people distracting themselves during a sacred act,” Claire can’t shake the feeling that he is witnessing “the foretaste of some looming spiritual crisis.”
It is tempting to dismiss Claire’s concern as hyperbolic, but we should take a moment to consider the matter more closely. Claire takes the problem of distraction seriously because he understands the value of attention. Attention is, as Claire recognizes, a precious and limited resource. “It is that part of our soul we give to the world around us,” he eloquently notes, “the gateway to the self.”
Even more significantly, it is also a part of the soul that is essential to our communion with God. Claire cites the French philosopher Simone Weil who wrote, “The habit of attention is the substance of prayer.”
Elsewhere, Weil went so far as to say that “the key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention.” Prayer, she believed, was “the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”
When we think about our present crisis of attention, we naturally think about the devices whose use has undoubtedly made a habit of the state distraction. But we cannot place all the blame on our devices. “There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue,” Weil wrote decades before the first smartphone was manufactured.
Writing in the 17th century, the polymath Blaise Pascal also diagnosed our penchant for distraction, or what he called diversion, as a spiritual malaise that was endemic to the fallen human condition. “What people want,” Pascal insists, “is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.” “Nothing could be more wretched,” Pascal added, “than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”
Writing in a similar vein, the 20th century American novelist, Walker Percy, described what he called the “diverted self” as follows: “In a free and affluent society, the self is free to divert itself endlessly from itself. It works in order to enjoy the diversions that the fruit of one’s labor can purchase.” For the diverted self, Percy concluded, “The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion.”
While the problem of distraction is amplified by the power and ubiquity of our digital devices, it is at root a spiritual problem. It is one symptom of an age-old problem: disordered desires. “We attend to what we want, what we need, what we find interesting, attractive, and so on,” Clair observes, “Thus the problem is less about distraction than about desire. Our dwindling capacity for attention reveals our fractured worlds of desire—hyper-temporary, dazzled by light and color, summoned by restlessness rather than meaning.” Echoing Augustine, Claire writes, “We have lost our ability to give our attention to the right things, in the right amount, at the right time.”
Education, then, especially insofar as it aims at moral and spiritual as well as intellectual formation, must set for itself the task of cultivating in students the habits of deep and patient attentiveness. It must take up the challenge of combatting the forces of distraction that define our cultural milieu. And those institutions, like Smith Prep, that provide a communal context for the work of education must become places whose structures and rhythms sustain the habits of attentiveness that are so important to both the intellectual and spiritual life.
As Claire concludes, “Our capacity for attention is a matter of Christian conviction and witness …. [O]rdering our attention and overcoming our addiction to distraction has everything to do with our ability to recognize Christ in one another and to learn what it means to be the body of Christ, a people formed by habits of good attention, giving and exchanging the gifts of attention in a world of distraction.”