On Sunday afternoons, I like to ask my teenage son about the morning’s sermon. “What did you think?” I’ll say, and wait for the inevitable one-word answer: “Good.” I usually push a bit, asking for a little more detail, only to discover he cannot remember anything substantive about what was said. On my better days, I smile and fill in the blank for him. On my worse days, I ask why he can’t remember, allowing my frustration to color my voice. His response is often the same: “I want to listen, but it’s just so hard to pay attention.”
My son is right. Paying attention is difficult, and lately it seems to get harder. After all, we live in what Alan Jacobs calls “an age of distraction,” one where so many demands on our attention exist that we have less and less to give. The traditional attention hogs—television and other media, sports, politics, popular culture, even work—have grown fatter as they’ve migrated to the internet and become always-on, always-available temptations. What’s more, sacrificing to these greedy gods has become not only common but a normal, expected way of life. Places that once fostered face-to-face encounters now provide yet another place to be distracted among other people.
Talk like this comforts me, because it enables me to point the finger at someone or something other than myself. I want to blame the corporations that advertise on every available surface, the restaurants that cover the walls with televisions, the technology companies that deliver more and more media to my phone. I want to lash out at anyone who leaves me with a dwindling supply of attention for God, His Word, or His people. And like Adam, I will go so far as blaming God’s potentially good gifts for my own weakness and sin: “These gifts of common grace, they distracted me.”
In reality, I have to face a sobering fact—I’m the one who gives away my precious attention. I spend it as frivolously as the Prodigal Son of Luke 15 spent his inheritance, then find myself kneeling at the trough with pigs, rather than enjoying an abundant life in my Father’s house.
And that’s precisely the problem. Jesus promised abundant life (John 10:10), but how can we live abundantly if we ignore the way we spend our presence of mind? And how can we escape that faraway country of distraction in order to cultivate not only an abundant but also a generous life? In the parable, the lost son found his way home again, and his story can serve as a light to the dark path ahead of us. We, too, can go home, by which I mean toward a more mindful life.
I have to face a sobering fact—I’m the one who gives away my precious attention.
Our journey begins, as the Prodigal Son’s does, when we’re able to recognize where we are and how we got there. Our most difficult task may be that first one—seeing where we are—because our shiny bright world blurs our vision and hides the pigpen. We need the lights to dim a bit to understand how far we’ve drifted from the true, the good, and the beautiful—to see our distracted life doesn’t fulfill its promises of more and better. In other words, we need to find the off button. That might mean literally turning off a device, but it might also mean saying no to yet another commitment, or getting out into the natural world, or simply staying just a little longer for that extra cup of coffee on the porch. You might call this first-stage attention, because it’s what reveals our need and paves the way for a more attentive life.
After this recognition comes an opportunity to own our condition—in other words, to recognize we made the choices that landed us in our situation. The lost son sees his hunger for what it is: the fruit of his wasteful spending. We, too, have to come to our senses and recognize the great cost of our misguided attention. Pointing the finger at technology or some other scapegoat ignores our own culpability, but accepting our responsibility frees us to walk toward home.
And then we may use our knowledge and our will to choose differently—to attend differently than we have before. “Genuinely to attend,” as Alan Jacobs writes, “is to give of oneself with intent.” That determination is evident in the son’s decision to return to his father, even at the cost of his own freedom. When we attend in this way, we purposefully open our eyes and focus our minds on the object of our attention. And like the son, we find the most worthy object in our Father. For that moment, at least, nothing else intrudes. This amounts to living not just for God, but with Him.
This is difficult work. The distractions we meet on a daily basis promise diversion and delight, but these are hollow imitations of the eternal kind of life. God, on the other hand, promises us salvation, both now and for eternity. Even more importantly, He offers us Himself with the gentle reminder: Attention, please.
Illustration by Jon Ham