Politics & Policy

Freedom from Distraction

(Dreamstime image: Maksym Yemelyanov)
The modern world is full of demands on our attention. Not all of them should be met.

Why did God rest on the seventh day? Did He run out of breath?

In the latest issue of New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote a beautiful article titled, “I Used to Be a Human Being” about our technology-fueled addiction to distraction. At some level, everyone knows exactly what he means.

An early pioneer of online journalism, Sullivan describes himself as a “web obsessive.” First came the blog, and then a cascade of innovations in news, entertainment, and social networking that made Sullivan’s obsession ubiquitous. Our lives became dominated by distraction. Smartphones, with their endless apps, constantly demand our attention. There is never any quiet, never any rest.

There is no escape.

But we don’t want to escape. Sullivan’s blog, at its peak, reached up to 100,000 readers a day, spreading interesting analysis that people enjoyed. There is an incomprehensibly large amount of information on the Internet, and it is now all at our fingertips, every minute of every day. Sullivan writes that it’s all there “to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate” you — the choice is yours — and it will never run out. Isn’t that freedom?

Our society would unreservedly answer yes. After all, lack of access to information, previously a constraint on action, has been reduced to an afterthought. Man has broken out of his chains. It is funny then, that our liberated man looks so much like a slave, falling prey to mechanized algorithms that target him with exactly the type of clickbait article he has proven himself unable to resist. If it is in this way that man has been liberated, he has merely become free to surrender to his appetites; or put differently, we were correct to enshrine the pursuit of happiness, not mediocrity.

What if, one day per week, we said no to the noise?

So what if, one day per week, we said no to the noise? No to the noise of work that can now be done anytime, even when you’re at home and could be spending time with your family. No to the noise of Facebook updates and YouTube videos. No to knowing about everything going on in the world.

It turns out that “everything” isn’t all it’s made out to be. For when “everything” is thrust aside, what’s left is silence to contemplate and rest, and time to spend on the people who matter. Moreover, as a Jew, beginning to observe Shabbat has allowed me to follow my people’s ancient rhythms of life; I know that that they, too, are mine, and that they are good.

The rabbis teach that one only becomes free by submitting to the discipline of Shabbat — foregoing all work, electricity, and more, from Friday night to Saturday night. Putting down our phones doesn’t handcuff us; it removes the handcuffs that were already on. It liberates us from the passions that drive us to scroll through an Instagram feed that remains unchanged since last time, and impulsively, unconsciously check for new e-mails. By cultivating the discipline to say no, we regain true freedom of choice.

Sullivan, a Catholic and no Judaizer either, clearly appreciates the rabbis’ wisdom. He went phone-free for one hour each day. Think about it: If you cannot go without something for just one hour per day, has it made you free or tied you down? Sullivan also mentions the possibility of a “digital Sabbath” in which people of all faiths turn off their phones for 24 hours straight, once a week.  Imagine the benefits to busy families who find time for each other and weary individuals who revel in the riches of serenity. After all, when the noise dies down, the essential longings of the soul may finally be heard.

Indeed, after a long period of denial, Sullivan finally realized that his online life was not just a “supplement” to his real life. It was not even a threat to his mind, which could “shape-shift under the pressure.” Rather, the epidemic of distraction was a threat to his soul. Like Sullivan, we are all being denied the multicolored depth of a soul with room to breathe.

It can feel like it is too late to change. Without my phone, laptop, or television on the Sabbath, the silence looms and I often find myself fleeing. Sometimes I flee to sleep, bored but desperate to avoid confronting the clock. Mostly I jump from activity to activity, thought to thought, doing all I can to avoid rest because I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Though the Sabbath gives us the time we need to think, we have forgotten how to contemplate and forgotten how to focus. We may have even forgotten how to really spend time with our families, and truly live with the people we love. The amount of time that I use well on the Sabbath is probably measurable in minutes rather than hours.

But where else can we start our journey of renewal, if not from the beginning?

God didn’t rest on the seventh day because He was tired. God rested because He knew silence was holy, liberating, and good for the soul, and He was gracious enough to let us in on the secret. Thankfulness and Imitatio Dei are in order.

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