Tolerating distraction

Should we be more patient with those we view as distracted? Photo by Serhii Bobyk/Shutterstock.com

(The Conversation) — A constant complaint in our unpredictable world is that we live in an age of distraction.

I am quick to label students who stare at their phones in my class distracted; politicians dismiss inconvenient questions by calling them a distraction; and when we find distraction in ourselves, we blame it on technology. In other words, we think of attention as a rare and valuable commodity, and we assume that distraction is a problem with an identifiable cause.

Consider for a moment, what would a medieval monk or a 17th-century preacher make of our complaints about modern distraction?

I argue, they would, in all likelihood, find them strange. To be sure, they too felt distracted, all the time. But, as my research on premodern Christianity shows, they thought of distraction as the human condition itself. Above all, they maintained a remarkably patient attitude toward it.

Are attention and distraction similar?

I offer an account of this Christian prehistory of attention and distraction in my book, “Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention.” Although I wrote the book as a Renaissance scholar, while working on it I was constantly reminded of the topic’s relevance in contemporary life. What has intrigued me most then and now is the cultural values we associate with distraction and attention.

The dichotomy between good attention and bad distraction is so fundamental that it is written into the very language we use to talk about attending. Consider the phrase “I pay attention.” It implies that attention is valuable, a type of currency we deliberately and consciously invest in. When I pay attention, I am in control of my action, and I am aware of its value.

Now compare this with the phrase “I am distracted.” Suddenly we are dealing with a passive and vulnerable subject who suffers an experience without doing much to contribute to it.

But there are reasons to question this dichotomy. Students who are “distracted” by their phones could just as well be described as paying attention to their Facebook feed; the question that the politician dismisses as a distraction probably calls attention to a matter that actually deserves it.

Do attention and distraction refer to the same behavior? Photo by StockLite/Shutterstock.com

In other words, it is reasonable to ask whether attention and distraction are simply two morally and culturally charged terms referring to what in reality is the same behavior. We label this behavior distraction when we disapprove of its objects and objectives; and we call it attention when we approve of them.

One would expect this moralizing discourse of attention and distraction to be especially prevalent in Christianity. In popular imagination, medieval monks shut out the outside world, and Reformation preachers have issued stern warnings to their congregation to resist the distractions of life.

But while it is true that historical Christianity took distraction seriously, it also had a nuanced and often remarkably tolerant attitude toward it.

Early views toward distraction

Consider the following passage from the English poet and preacher John Donne’s 17th-century sermon:

“I am not all here, I am here now preaching upon this text, and I am at home in my Library considering whether S[aint] Gregory, or S[aint] Hierome, have said best of this text, before. I am here speaking to you, and yet I consider by the way, in the same instant, what it is likely you will say to one another, when I have done. You are not all here neither; you are here now, hearing me, and yet you are thinking that you have heard a better Sermon somewhere else, of this text before.”

Donne was known to his contemporaries as a masterful speaker, and this passage shows why: In just a few sentences, he calls his congregation’s attention to their distractedness and admits that even he, the preacher is only partly focused on the here and the now. In other words, Donne uses the distraction he shares with his audience to forge both a community and a moment of attentiveness.

Its rhetorical flair aside, Donne’s sermon expresses an old and fairly orthodox Christian view about distraction’s ubiquity. The most influential early exponent of this view is St. Augustine, one of the Church Fathers of Western Christianity. In his autobiographical work, “The Confessions,” Augustine observes that every time we pay attention to one thing, we are distracted from infinitely many other things.

A stained glass window of St. Augustine by Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Lightner Museum in Florida. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

This simple observation has far-reaching implications.

First, Augustine sees attention and distraction as merely different aspects of the same action. But instead of moralizing these aspects, he finds the inevitability of distraction to be a fundamental feature of the human condition, that is, the very thing that distinguishes us from God.

Augustine’s God is not only omniscient and omnipotent but also omni-attentive – not a term that Augustine uses, but he describes God as being able to attend to all things in both time and space simultaneously.

This is a complicated claim, but for now it is enough for us to see its consequences: Human creatures may aspire to be God-like in their acts of attention, but every such act produces more evidence that they are in fact humans – which in turn will make them appreciate attention even more.

What is the relevance of distraction?

The modern anxiety about distraction betrays a good deal about us. Insofar as we associate attention with power and control, it reflects our fears of losing both in an increasingly unpredictable cultural and natural climate. We also find ourselves living in an economy where we pay for cultural goods with our attention, so it makes sense that we worry about running out of a precious currency.

Distraction, a valuable experience? Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

It is then intriguing to see how historical Christian views about attention and distraction both foreshadow some of these anxieties and counter them. For Augustine and his followers, attention was a rare and valuable experience, perhaps even more than for us since they associated it with the divine.

One might expect that as a result they should have simply dismissed distraction. The fact that they didn’t is what gives their thoughts continuing relevance today.The Conversation

David Marno is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the author

David Marno


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  • Putting a quick end to the distractions of religion via The Great Kibosh of All Religions:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Obviously, you are trapped in the bible box. Rigorous historic testing of said bible will set you free. The studies of Professors Crossan and Ludemann provide the keys. An important conclusion: 90% of the NT is historically nil .

  • You keep posting the same thing, over & over again – simple formulas for simple minds. Simplistic answers to complex questions look profound to the simple-minded, but to an inquiring mind they’re repetitious, tedious, and beside the point.
    You’re trapped in the kibosh box.

  • Au Contraire! The Great Kibosh is a summary of over one thousand documents as referenced in the studies of Professors Ludemann, Borg , Crossan , Ehrman, Brown , Wright, Pagels , Meier , Armstrong et.al. I have saved you a lot time and money in the process. Reiteration is also an important learning tool. You may now skip The Great Kibosh as you have passed the test or have you?


  • I agree that it IS important to save time & money. So I will help you by pointing out some simple truths.

    1. The nine scholars you named, clearly do NOT agree with each other. In fact, “Wright” (Dr. NT Wright) has been a major opponent of skeptics like Crossan, Borg, and Ludemann for years. (Especially Wright’s textbooks Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God.) Plus, “Brown” (Dr. Raymond Brown) and “Meier” (Dr. John Meier) textbooks also disagree with Crossan.

    2. What are Crossan’s weaknesses? His book The Historical Jesus is so thick that can take a semester-long university class to get through it. So here are two simple “Great Kiboshes” to put on Crossan:

    2a. Crossan rejects the supernatural miracles of Jesus, NOT because he found any new historical or science facts to eliminate them, but only because he rejects the existence of the supernatural, PERIOD. He simply assumes, without any evidence or science or rational facts, that the supernatural doesn’t exist. Thus he rejects ALL of Jesus’ miracles, even those miracles that pass Crossan’s other tests like “multiple attestation.”

    But Crossan is easily defeated here, because as Christian philosopher Winfried Corduan wrote, the only way you can rationally rule out the existence of the supernatural in this universe, is to first show that this universe is NOT a theistic universe at all. Not one atheist has ever succeeded in doing so. So Crossan is wrong and biased.

    2b. Crossan gets most of his Messed-Up Mess by pretending that the so-called “Gospel of Thomas” is not only a true Gospel like Matt, Mark, Luke, and John, but in fact written earlier and more trustworthy than the Four Gospels. But that’s where most New Testament Scholars disagree with Crossan. It’s a wrong unproven claim, PLUS the last part of the Gospel of Thomas says a woman must become a man in order to be Christ’s disciple and hook up with his Kingdom. Well you know THAT doesn’t fit with any Gospel at all, and doesn’t even fit with Crossan’s own description of Jesus as an equal opportunity religious figure.

    That’s just scratching the surface. There’s 100 other bombs you could drop on the Skeptics every day and twice on Sunday. But I hope this helps.

  • Obviously, you have a short attention span. Also, you are correct about Father Brown and Bishop Wright and Professor Meier. Their tomes disagree with Professor Crossan’s and Professor Ludemann’s rigorous historic testing but they were consulted none the less to compare their scholarship vs. those of true historians. Also, keep in mind that their jobs were/are dependent on toeing the Vatican/Notre Dame and Canterbury lines.

    Regarding Father Brown:


    “Fr. Brown could not prove on historical grounds, he said, that Christ instituted the priesthood or episcopacy as such; that those who presided at the Eucharist were really priests; that a separate priesthood began with Christ; that the early Christians looked upon the Eucharist as a sacrifice; that presbyter-bishops are traceable in any way to the Apostles; that Peter in his lifetime would be looked upon as the Bishop of Rome; that bishops were successors of the Apostles,”

    And we wait for your proof that your god exists!!!

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