Ladies and gentlemen, I have an addiction. I am completely and utterly addicted to distraction. Between my computer, my phone, my music, my Facebook, my Pinterest (don’t get an account – it is addictive in and of itself), my books, and my television, I am incapable of being present with other people. I cannot have a conversation without letting my eyes dart away to a computer screen or a page, or without my mind floating off to my next meal and my plans for the weekend.
I first noticed that I had a problem in class last semester. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I remember asking a question that had already been answered. I hadn’t heard the response because I was on my computer. My good friend, Stephanie, answered it for me and noted (sarcastically) that I was “So present.” I found it strange that she used the word “present.” After all, I was in class, wasn’t I? I was there when attendance was taken, and I turned in my assignment. But for some reason, just being in class isn’t quite enough. Being present doesn’t mean just existing. I have discovered since that day that it means existing and engaging.
Over the month of December and into January, I began to deliberately deny myself access to my distractions. It was an interesting scenario because I went home to Houston for Christmas break, and had no homework assignments or lengthy to-do lists to fill my day with. Instead, I spent my time with the family and friends I hadn’t seen in months. When my family would go out to eat, I left my phone in the car. I tried to keep it in my purse during Christmas parties, hayrides, and sleepovers with my friends. I exited out of Pinterest to listen closely to my mom as she described the renovations she was doing on the kitchen, and I took my headphones out to listen to my brother tell me about his video game. I picked up a few shifts at the restaurant I worked at in high school, where I found myself intentionally putting down my rag to listen to an elderly customer who had come mostly for the burgers but also for some company.
I also began to notice how often others distracted themselves from our interactions. It had never bothered me before that my friends and I would sit at a table in silence, each of us engrossed in our phones or computers. Blaring music in the car made the ride fun, but also took away precious moments of fellowship with my closest friends, many of whom I won’t see for another five months.
Those of you who were there know just how often I failed at these efforts. I’d say that it was nothing personal, but I did you a personal disservice by ignoring you, and I apologize.
However, just putting the distraction away is not enough. Being intentionally present with others means focusing as much as possible on what they have to say, not just grunting in response. It means not thinking about what you want to say in response before they have even finished their sentence. (As an ex-debater, this is difficult for me.) It means really concentrating on what answer you give, instead of filling up the conversation with useless words. It means offering real goodbye hugs and real hugs of encouragement, rather than halfhearted embraces.
My addiction does not apply only to people. It also prevents me from paying attention to what is around me. My world is so beautiful. Between green hills, wide plains, massive blue skies, brilliant lightning, and wild dust storms, Texas is amazing country, full of a raw beauty and power that I almost miss all the time. My home is also beautiful in small ways, full of robins, blue jays, goldfish, crosses, benches, and other little things I often don’t notice and enjoy.
Jose Ortega, a Spanish philosopher and humanist who lived in the first part of the 20th century (before the iPhone and the Internet), once claimed, “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”
I know that the things I pay attention to are not who I want to be. I want to pay attention to those who around me. I want to celebrate their joys and mourn with them in their sorrows. I want to pay attention to the needs of this world, to the poor and downtrodden in spirit, to the hungry and the needy, to the cold and the sick. If Ortega is correct, I am an iPhone. I am a book. I am a poorly written TV show. I am a craft on Pinterest. I am a profile picture on Facebook.
I want to be a person.
So here is my challenge to you, dear reader. Join me in my endeavor to become less distracted and more intentional in my relationships. Finish this post and then close the computer. Put your phone away. If you want to be really adventurous, dare to turn it off. Find your friends or family and spend some time just being with them. It doesn’t matter what you do. Talk to them. Listen. Focus on what they’re doing. Pay attention to the colors in their eyes, or to what they do with their hands while they’re talking. When you’re driving, try turning off the music and looking at the places you are driving past or talking to the person in the passenger seat. You may think this sounds ridiculous, but I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t have the same problem that I do. It’s even truer if you are a college student. I know you’re busy – we all are. But we’re not going through life alone, so there’s no reason to isolate ourselves from each other. Let’s do this thing together.
I am trying to change to what I pay attention.