My phone alarm wakes me. As I silence it, groggy and half-blind, I see a notification that someone has commented on my post. I swipe to see it. And there I am, phone already in my face, inundated by images and words through a luminous screen. Before I’ve even taken stock of my body, said good morning to my husband, or looked out the window to see what the weather is doing. Some days I see the weather app before I see the out-of-doors.
I was listening to a podcast a few months ago about soul care, and something the host said stopped me dead: “You are under a very conscious, intentional, and sustained assault on your attention.”* In an age of information, it is our attention that is the prime real estate of the economy. And make no mistake, it is being fought for every waking moment. How can our souls thrive in such an environment, at such a pace?
And this pace has programmed us to become passive consumers of entertainment, distraction, and information. We are connoisseurs of the inane. I feel it in the grocery line and at stoplights. Just a little media, or a little game, or at the very least a podcast or audiobook or music going in the background. My fingers itch for my device when friends are talking, at church, when my children want me to watch them perform a new dance they invented. My attention span is a sad cliché of this era.
Even the need to be informed of world events and politics ultimately leaves us opinionated but seldom stakeholders. The human soul can only bear witness to so much suffering before it forms a protective shell of distance. We risk the deadening of our compassion by the sheer mass of the information we take in. Like Stalin said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Don’t misunderstand. We must bear witness. But not from the comfort and anonymity of our devices. We have to find ways to move from being mere bystanders to becoming upstanders who dirty our own hands on behalf of those who suffer.
But if we are becoming callous to the world’s suffering, we are also becoming addicts of the unattainable. This constant exposure to entertainment and glimpses into the curated moments of others’ lives whittles away at our sense of worth and purpose. In the years that I stayed home with my children, I despaired over the daily menial tasks, which felt like futility. Why fold the laundry when it will all be made dirty again tomorrow? Why clean the breakfast dishes when a snack will messy the kitchen the moment it’s clean? It struck at something deep within in me that longed for my life to be meaningful, its moments beautiful.
Even since my youth, I have begrudged the effort involved in the routine of self-care and daily hygiene. What’s done must be done over and over again. Entropy has been my nemesis. But isn’t indifference to such routines an indication of depression? Something about the daily is fundamentally important to our mental health.
In recent years, I’ve begun to sense that maybe it is the daily and the momentary that is the most important. After all, we live in no other time but the now. I keep getting glimpses of this truth.
I was watching Michael Pollan’s Cooked on Netflix, and in the second episode he explores how our growing distance from preparing our own food from raw ingredients is making us sick. A young chef is cooking beans, chopping herbs, and peeling garlic, and she says, “[These are] some of my favorite kinds of things to do. Just these little, you almost could call them mindless tasks, but I like to think of them as mindful tasks. It’s about getting to that point in your own mind where this becomes pleasure instead of drudgery. As a culture we have just gotten so far from these little tasks. It seems like it’s getting in the way of life, but actually, this is life.”
I suppose this is the draw I feel to monasteries—people who pare life down to its essence and do it with a contemplative discipline. Like Thoreau in Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”
It’s interesting because as a child, high on the film Dead Poet’s Society, I was deeply moved by this Transcendental sentiment, and I thought it meant living life passionately and gorgeously. But that’s not what Thoreau is saying at all. He’s talking about reducing life to its essence to find what it truly means to be a human. We pity the caveman, but perhaps he knew what it meant to be alive, body and soul, far more than you or I. Thoreau believed so.
Spiritual writer Kathleen Norris, pledged herself as an unlikely oblate to a Benedictine monastery. Unlikely as a Protestant married woman—all that the monks she spent her days with were not. She wrote a chapbook titled Quotidian Mysteries in which she explores the spiritual implications of the daily and the routine learned from monastic life. She says, “Might we consider boredom as not only necessary for our life, but one of its greatest blessings? A gift, pure and simple, a precious chance to be alone with our thoughts, and alone with God?”**
And so for the last several months, I have been keeping my headphones out and my stereo off. I don’t listen to anything as I garden, or go for a walk, or drive to work. I miss audio books—I have precious little time to actually sit and read. But instead of others’ words coming at me, I let prayer arise from within me. And thoughts. And creative ideas. I’m trying to unplug in intentional ways and I’m always looking for more. What about throwing the breaker on a Friday night and eating with my family by candlelight and playing games afterward? What about not bringing the phone into the bedroom? What about pausing for just 30 seconds between arriving at work and going inside to center myself on what matters?
It is the poets who say all this best, so I leave you with an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
J.M. RODDY is a Seattle-based freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, a mother of two, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.
* John Eldredge, The Ransomed Heart Podcast
**from Acedia and Me, a book expanded from Quotidian Mysteries