Monday, July 14, 2014

Distracted by Distraction

I don't know anyone who isn't addicted to distraction. In this modern age, in this advanced society it's next to impossible to live life without near continuous distraction in one form or another. From the moment we wake up in the morning until we lay our heads back down we spend most of our waking hours distracted or looking for ways to pull ourselves away from the reality of the world we live in.

As we eat our breakfast and sip our coffee we are watching the morning news on the TV or reading the paper. When behind the wheel driving in to work it isn't enough to just pay attention to the road, the traffic and weather conditions, we must also listen to the radio or CD or worse, talk or text on the mobile phone. We get to our desk and before long we find ourselves reacting to a funny e-mail or recanting stories of the past weekend or maybe surfing the Internet. Anything but do the job at hand - at least for a while.

When we get home it's distraction city - especially if there are small children in the home. Once dinner is finished the whole point is to distract oneself until bedtime so that we can get up the next morning and do it all over again. For some it's the TV. For the younger set it's straight to the computer or game console for endless hours of shoot 'em up. For many it's the newest addiction of the modern age - Facebooking.

I say all this not to admonish, hell, I'm addicted to distraction too, rather, I wonder if we are actually any the worse for it. I suspect we are, however, for many people it's the distractions that make life worth living. You know the saying - all work and no play...

Most of us have a lot of free time. In modern societies we are not spending the bulk of our time hunting and gathering. When our minds and bodies are free from the the very act of survival we have a need to fill our lives with something. The thing to ponder is who is making the decision with what to fill it with - us or someone else.

As with anything if we examine that which compels the action we can discern whether it is good, benign or dangerous. Chief among all reasons people give in to distraction is of course boredom. Nine times out of ten when I plop down in front of the TV it's because my life at that point in time is boring. I think this is entirely normal, right? There are probably a thousand reasons people succumb to distraction starting with the inability to face reality at all - and everything in between.

The question becomes then what isn't a distraction? Reading a book? Gardening? Working out? Playing guitar or piano? I guess it depends. Are we supposed to be doing something productive or meaningful 24/7?

The impetus for me to even to broach this subject is the release of Bruce Charlton's new book "Addicted to Distraction". In it Charlton specifically focuses on the mass media. There's no doubt that every one this side of Rip Van Winkel is deeply affected by the mass media. According the always insightful Charlton we ignore the power of the mass media at or own peril.

From Charlton's preview of the book...
How can I convince you that you are deluded?

Well, it won’t be easy because you are not alone; you a part of a folie a billion, a mass delusion, induced by the Mass Media.

You are, in fact, subject to the most pervasive and effective propaganda in the history of humanity; a propaganda which has people not noticing the evidence of their eyes and ignoring the evidence of their own experience.

We allow, we encourage, we demand for this to happen because we are inside the Mass Media and addicted to it; and although it destroys all that makes meaning, purpose, and relationship possible; the Mass Media then takes our alienated, adrift, self-loathing and lonely selves and offers distraction, consolation, absorption, fragments and glimmerings of pleasure and self-forgetfulness...

And yet the Mass Media has no person in-control, no group of persons, not even an interest group. The destructiveness of the Mass Media operates equally – or more – against the participants: the journalists, broadcasters, editors, hype-ers and spinners, public relation professionals and advertisers and propagandists... All are dragged-down just like everybody else by their own destructiveness.

Besides offering mere distractions so much of the entertainment media actually pollutes our minds with toxic pictures and themes about our culture and our belief systems to make us think black is white, good is evil and the demented are the righteous. They do this for no other reason than they can. In a world where everything is relative there is no guiding principle, no ultimate right or wrong. Is it any wonder things are so fouled up.

On occasion a program, a book or a movie is produced that actually enlightens, affirming the goodness of humanity far beyond any self serving agenda. If they are not panned or ridiculed in such a way they ultimately have no power, the underlying affirmation of human goodness, human decency is completely ignored. This is true of decent people too. One need only look at what the mass media did to Tim Tebow, a man, a role model who could have deserved it less. The media took extreme pleasure in building him up just to tear him down. Yet complete scumbags, sluts and thugs are repeatedly celebrated.

The mass media and it's guiding principle political correctness dictate everything in today's culture - this much we all must acknowledge. That said, what is the personal grip the power of distraction holds over us? I go back to the question - what isn't distraction? Are we talking about anything less than meaningful work and quiet self-contemplation? I'm sorry, I don't have the answer.

We need to ask ourselves why we are so afraid of solitude and self reflection? Why do so many of us choose to live vicariously through others instead of creating our own stories. Why we are terrified of being alone with ourselves?

Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia professor of psychology and lead author of a study to determine if people would be comfortable alone with just their thoughts, was surprised by what they found. Not only did most people not enjoy solitude and quiet contemplation many of the men in the study preferred self-administered electric shock to being alone with their thoughts. Previous surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world, and, when they do, they do not particularly enjoy it.

In some of Wilson's experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes – depending on the study – entertaining themselves with their thoughts. They were then to answer questions about how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating. Nearly all found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. Most of the participants did not enjoy the experience.

This confirms in a sense that it is human nature to avoid boredom. It also seems to point at the profound shallowness of people. The study periods were a mere 15 minutes. One would think anybody could quietly self reflect and even relax for 15 minutes. To be honest I'm not entirely certain that I could do it.

I think it also goes to show that people don't really know themselves, that they don't even want to. When our minds are quiet is it possible that we are not alone at all? Is it possible that in those times we are in the presence of God? Are we so frightened by the prospect that we do something, anything to avoid that meeting?

Let me sit here quietly and think about that for fifteen moments.



Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for mentioning the new book.

It would not surprise me from my own observations (leaving aside 'research'!) that the majority of people disliked even 15 minutes of unstructured time in solitude - although it might depend on whether this time was spent inside a typical modern university building, or sitting on the banks of a beautiful lake on a fine day!

But this is why the most successful and strong Christian societies have largely filled the time of most people with prescribed activities of approved types - although this can seen extremely, even unbearably, oppressive to people such as myself.

Timothy Birdnow said...

You are right about this, Craig; most people are afraid to be alone with their thoughts. It's why our society is in such a mess, methinks!

As you know, I built a cabin in the woods and enjoy spending time there. I used to read a lot, but now often sit for hours just soaking in the peace and feeling the gentle presence of God. He IS there, and too often we fail to hear Him.