Distracted Beyond Recall


“We are distracted from distraction by distraction.”
-T.S. Eliot

Today it is a commonplace to talk about the many ways in which we are distracted by information and communication technology. Distraction isn’t something new of course; it existed before the advent of smartphones and iPads. T. S. Eliot wrote the above line in the 1930’s but way before that the desert mothers and fathers talked about the distraction of the “noon day demon” —the tendency of our minds to wander from the meaning and purpose of existence and become ensnared in trivia and self-deception.

But today there is no question about the fact that the changes brought about by the digital revolution can result in a perpetual state of distraction. This morning I opened The New York Times to find an article on the New York City mayoral race. It seems that the candidates are increasingly and habitually checking their smart phones while engaged in forums, debates and speeches! The author, Sarah Maslin Nir, opines that we may not have noticed this because “we are too busy staring at our own smartphones.” But she notes a disturbing tendency “is the way the ubiquity of mobile devices has introduced a new peril into candidate-voter interactions: distracted campaigning.”

In Margaret Wheatley’s book, So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World she asks, “How long can you focus on any activity these days? How many pages can you read before wandering off?” She fears “We are rapidly losing the ability to think long and hard about anything, even those issues or topics we care about.” Certainly this loss of thoughtfulness is an obvious peril in a political campaign. We want thoughtful leaders who are able to give their full attention to the complex problems that beset our “brave new world.” The prophetic economist and leadership guru, Otto Scharmer emphatically reminds us that the quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which people in the system operate.

Wheatley points out that distraction—lack of awareness— caused the Titanic to sink because the radio operator was too distracted to heed the messages of warning being sent to him. We know many car accidents and the recent train wreck in Canada were caused by distractions while texting or somehow being engaged with our “smart” devices.

But the greatest peril is the one Maslin Nir points to when she mentions distracted campaigning as a danger to candidate-voter interactions. Our constant state of distraction—our lack of awareness—our absence of mindfulness—can be lethal to relationship. The poet Marie Howe asks the question, “What is the one face you spend the most time gazing into? She was aghast to find that the answer most of us must give to this question is “a screen”— not a living, breathing entity but a digital screen of some kind. When we neglect or ignore relationships we lose our appreciation for the meaning and purpose of our lives. We lose any hope of transformation because as Richard Rohr points out God is a mystery of relationship, and the truest relationship is love.  Love requires mindfulness and presence.

My iPhone is an efficient and wonderful tool but when it distracts me from my relationship with you, it retards my ability to love. The theologian and scientist, Ilia Delio points out that quantum physics indicates “being is intrinsically relational and exists as unbroken wholeness.” Let me hold her words then, as a touchstone in this brave, new technological world:

God rises up at the heart of cosmic evolution through the power of love, which science and technology can facilitate but not surpass. The future of the earth, therefore, lies not in science and technology but in the spiritual power of world religions and the power of love.

Patricia Speier, Executive Director