How should we think about the Age of Distraction?

| Father Michael Schmitz | June 4, 2019 | 0 Comments
Phone distraction

iStock/Martinan

Q. I have all of these plans for my day, but then I just get so distracted that it seems like I don’t get anything done. Even more, I am always “somewhere else” when I should be with the people who matter the most to me. Is that even possible?

A. This is such a great question. I maintain that we live in an “Age of Distraction.” If there is any common experience that unites almost all of us in the developed world, it is this battle against distraction.

Actually, I should be more precise. Not all of us are in a battle against distraction; many of us have capitulated and handed over the reins of our lives to the next distraction. It has become the “default setting” with which most of us proceed through life. How many of us can stand in line, sit in a waiting room, or simply be by ourselves without giving in to the constant pressure to be somewhere else by turning to our phone or device?

This is nothing new. Human beings have almost always experienced this challenge. In the 17th century, mathematician and Catholic thinker Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He placed his finger on the inner impulse we all experience to distract ourselves.

Before going further, it could be helpful to spell out what I mean by “distraction.” A distraction is anything that takes a person away from what he or she ought to be doing. That is how I have defined this term in the past, and it provides some framework for moving forward.

This implies a few important things. First, it is predicated on the idea that a person will know what he or she ought to be doing. And this is the first obstacle for many of us. How many people have a clear sense of what they should be doing in any given moment?

This is going to be critical, because if people do not have a clear sense of what they ought to be doing in any given moment, what happens after a bunch of those moments are strung together? What happens after an entire season of a person’s life (or an entire life) goes by without the person having a clear sense of what he or she ought to be doing? The Age of Distraction reveals the first problem: Too many people walk through life without clear meaning and purpose.

Second, the definition of distraction implies that people have made the decision to do what they ought. They have, out of a variety of options, chosen which option is the most important.

Years ago, I came across the term “option-itis,” which might also be referred to as FOMO, the “fear of missing out.” This “condition” afflicts many of us. In the face of numerous options, a person chooses not to choose any of them. Knowing that by walking through one door that other doors are closed, a person decides not to decide. What this means is that, ultimately, all doors are closed and one is left with whatever is left over. But he or she believes that he or she is sparing himself or herself the pain of choosing one thing and eliminating the other things. It is a fool’s bargain, because the individual surrenders the ability to have an active role in his or her own life. Yet it is tempting to leave one’s options open.

The result of this “not choosing” is the constant desire to be somewhere else. Even if people have a clear sense of what they ought to be doing, if they do not choose to be there and “do the thing,” they are choosing to live a pointless existence. The Age of Distraction reveals that too many people walk through life “off mission,” wishing that they were somewhere else, doing something else.

This distraction clearly costs us. It costs us enjoyment of life. It costs relationships. (Think about how often you have seen couples or groups of people “spending time” with each other as everyone is on their phones.) It can cost us even more.

St. Alphonsus Liguori once wrote that there are two ways for a person to lose his or her soul: through mortal sin and through voluntary distraction. The first is obvious to anyone who is a Catholic Christian; the second can come as an initial shock. But it makes sense once we reflect on it. If people live their lives intentionally distracting themselves from what it is that they ought to be doing, they will be throwing their lives away.

To be a saint is to will what God wills. But if I don’t know what God wills, how can I do it? If I know what he wills for me but keep wanting to be somewhere else, doing something else, how could I ever become a saint? To be holy is to “will one thing.” To choose one thing (God’s will for this moment) and not to be deterred from that thing. This is what it is to be holy — to be a saint. But to remain in a constant state of distraction is the opposite; it is not only to throw away this life — it is throwing away eternal life.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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