Distraction from a mind filled with thoughts is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual formation according to most Christians I’ve heard from in the past few years. This comes as no surprise since we are immersed in a distraction-rich ecosystem.
If our smartphones and other digital devices leave us feeling distracted and a bit at the mercy of their content, what is driving that distraction?
I would argue that, in part, our consumer economy that relies on advertising for entertainment and business revenue can’t be overlooked as a factor in filling our minds with thoughts. Some estimates say the average person is exposed to 10,000 advertising messages per day.
In other words, we can’t even process how many ads we’re seeing and hearing.
Adding to the complexity of our advertisement-driven economy, these ads are often selling us the comfort, status, and efficiency that we either crave or try hard to resist. These ads are appealing and tap into real needs and desires that may or may not be good for us.
The pursuit of comfort and the use of elegant interruptions are detrimental to the flourishing of Christian spirituality because they distract us and can even give way to a resignation. We may accept that the distractions and diversions of our smartphones and other screens must be accepted at face value.
What can we do about distraction? We may well feel helpless as advertisements distract us while pushing and pulling us toward the latest product or lifestyle.
In 1983, the journal “ETC: A Review of General Semantics” published an interview with French philosopher and devout Christian Jacques Ellul about the role of technology in society and the wider trend of efficiency and manipulation. Ellul shared his concerns about advertising:
“Advertising has now created a new type of man . . . Publicite is one of the ways to shape a new mentality for modern man. It has succeeded in making modern man into a consumer and has pushed him to take advantage of consuming. And now, advertising has shaped a conformist man . . . a man who is more into pleasure. He is a lot less worried about his work, more worried about consuming than living the agreeable part of life . . . I think for this reason we find ourselves in a society which more and more tries to strip the individual of his responsibility. And it seems that we are in a completely different world compared to other societies. And being in the presence of such complicated phenomena, we do not have the impression of being able to do much.”
This creation of a society that conforms to the demands of advertising and resigns itself to accepting the distractions can feel hopeless. How can spirituality thrive when there is a daily avalanche of offerings that demand a reaction and push us toward action?
While some may prefer drastic measures, most of us will benefit from a commitment to become the kinds of people who can sit in silence and intentionally move away from our screens for set periods of time.
Even two minutes of intentional silence (heck, use a timer if you want) can help us get our bearings and lay the foundation for a habit of daily silence.
Give yourself a bit of silence in the car on the way home from work or the store and then work on expanding the time a little bit each week.
Learn what it feels like to be free from the noise and appealing colors of your screens so that you can be fully present for God. Over time you’ll get a better handle on what it feels like to be present in the moment rather than at the mercy of technology.
Some Next Steps…
If you’re ready to remove some of the prompts to use your smartphone more frequently, consider this list of changes you can make to your phone via the Center for Humane Technology.
As you remove these prompts and make more space in your life for prayer, consider new prompts you can create for prayer. For instance, you could take a few minutes to write down some thoughts about the previous day each morning and use those as a prompt for prayer. Or you could read the morning office and seek a word from scripture to carry with you throughout the day.