Our Fractured Worlds of Desire
Attention is the mind’s desire.
This five words leaped off the screen when I read Joseph Clair’s fine essay “Our Own Devices” over at First Things this morning. The whole piece seemed like a living, breathing personal indictment, truth be told. But those five words, they thrust a question that I often do my best to avoid right to the front of my consciousness: what does the object and quality of the attention that I pay say about the nature of my desire?
The author puts the question in a provocative way:
What if, at the end of each day, you received a statement from the Bank of Attention updating all your recent expenditures, along with a heat map of smartphone use? Where did you leave your soul today? Did you blow your precious morning hours surfing ESPN, reading about a baseball player’s groin strain? I confess that I did.
Where did I leave my soul today? Whew, what a question. Very often it seems that I left it in a hopelessly random and unstructured collection of half-read blog posts and news articles and music recommendations and personal interest stories and the innumerable other distractible fragments thrown up by social media. Or in the frustratingly necessary and necessarily frustrating exercise of email triage that is part and parcel of modern life. Or in reading (and forgetting) a paragraph of a real book before being summoned by one of my devices. Or in babysitting my blog. Or in exhaustedly resigning myself to mindlessly drifting around the Internet and calling it sermon “research.” Or checking and rechecking messages that don’t need to be checked. Like a lab rat frantically hammering away on a lever to get a hit of dopamine, I flit back and forth from serious work to social media to the inevitable labyrinth of options that it presents to me. Some days I shudder to think of what my statement from the Bank of Attention would show.
It is easy, of course, to blame technology. I’ve done it often enough on this blog (see the increasingly bloated “Technology/Digital Culture” category link). “Technology is turning us into terminally distracted creatures” is a familiar narrative by now, and not without some merit. But for me, Clair’s piece uncovered the deeper roots of distraction:
[T]he problem is less about distraction than about desire. Our dwindling capacity for attention reveals our fractured worlds of desire—hyper-temporary, dazzled by light and color, summoned by restlessness rather than meaning. We have lost our ability to give our attention to the right things, in the right amount, at the right time. We don’t give our attention at all anymore. Our phones take it from us.
Our fractures worlds of desire... Hammer, meet head of nail. Our desires have shrunk to the size of our technological deliverances. Mine often have, at any rate. Rather than deciding to what I will attend and why, I too often allow my attention to be prodded along by the maelstrom of pings and updates and notifications and bells and whistles and lights and colours of my digital worlds. Ring a bell and watch me salivate. I have been summoned and I must dutifully respond. But by whom? Or by what? And with what justification? Very often, I fear I have been summoned by restlessness, rather than meaning, as Clair so aptly says.
Logic would demand that if the problem is disordered or misdirected desire, then the answer would be not to double down on discipline as an end in and of itself, but to mend my fractured desires. To seek to desire more singularly and toward better ends. Rather than just allowing my attention to be led around by the nose by the “hyper-temporary,” by the endless demands made through the seemingly endless media that I subject (what a telling word!) myself to, I must attend to what matters, to what gives life, to what grows love within me.
And the earlier the better, it seems to me. When I was younger and quite probably more pious, I would rise early in the morning to do “devotions.” I had picked up the idea that this was a necessary part of the Christian life so I would dutifully get up and slog through some portion of the Bible and mumble a few prayers before proceeding to cornflakes and coffee. It wasn’t always—or even often—very inspirational, but it was something like a real spiritual discipline. Over time, this began to change. Kids and all their demands arrived on the scene. Life circumstances changed. My understanding of the demands of piety became less naïve changed.
Oh, and the Internet arrived.
All of a sudden, rather attending to God first thing in the morning, I began to attend to sports scores and highlights from the previous day. Or email (this was back when it was still—incredibly!—somewhat exciting to get an email). Or, later, Facebook. Or the news of the day. Or all the messages that had accumulated during my slumbers. Or whatever else the Internet threw up for my consumption. And so, from my first waking moments, I allowed my attention to be fragmented and dominated by other voices. I was an eager participant in the fracturing of my own desire.
I don’t read the King James Version of the Bible often, but there are some passages for which no other translation will do. For me, one of those is Psalm 5:3:
My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up…
Perhaps the psalmist knew well what I am needing to relearn. Morning is the best time to “direct my prayer unto thee,” the best time to look up in order, at the very least, to be taught to attend properly, and in so doing to have my fractured desires mended.