Wednesday, November 10, 2010
The Cost of Distraction
"Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things."
Though writing hundreds of years ago, Blaise Pascal captured the spirit of our present age prophetically and profoundly. With the reality of suffering and the specter of death facing us all, most seek lives of distraction. Whether or not we recognize that the fear of death is an underlying, albeit unconscious, motivation, we nevertheless recognize that our lives are filled with distractions. Whether it is in the juggling of priorities, the relentless busyness of our age, or perpetual media noise, our lives are so full that we rarely give ourselves space or time to reflect. Particularly in Western societies, we fill our lives with mindless consumption that numbs us to the eventuality of our mortal condition and our finitude. The advertising industry is not unaware of our propensity to consumptive distraction. Marketers spent over 295 billion dollars in total media advertising in 2007. Perhaps we mistakenly assume that our vitality is inextricably bound up in our ability to consume.
It is easy to understand how our fear of death and suffering would compel human beings to live lives of distraction. Yet, the cost of that distraction is a pervasive and deadening apathy—apathy not simply as the inability to care about anything deeply, but the diminishment for engagement that comes from caring about the wrong things. Kathleen Norris laments: "It is indeed apathy's world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. We discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets."
Sadly, our inability to recognize our own mortality and to live our lives in light of the fact that we will die leads to the diminishment of our ability to genuinely care for others—because our care, by its very nature, will demand our willingness to suffer, and to lose our lives for someone else. The more we love, the more we open ourselves up to vulnerability and the possibility of pain. And yet, if we choose against loving engagement, we are left with a diminished and distracted life.
The ancient Hebrew poets, while meditating on the brevity of life, prayed, "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. " (Psalm 90:12). It was the inevitability of death that motivated this prayer for wisdom for living. This was a wisdom that didn't try to hide from the realities of life—be they joys or sorrows—but rather sought to keep finitude ever before it. Indeed the poem ends with a cry for God to "establish thou the work of our hands" Numbering life's days led to meaningful engagement in work—and this was the mark of wisdom.
Being mindful of our own deaths sadly leads some to distraction; yet it can lead others to wise engagement. Jesus, himself, faced his own death with intention and purpose as he walked the way of the cross, not only up the hill to Golgotha, but also as he offered his life in loving service to those around him. "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. ... No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself." The way of wisdom demonstrated by the life of Jesus calls us to engage our mortality as a catalyst for purposeful living. While following Jesus insists on our laying down our lives in his service, it can be done in the hope that abundant life is truly possible even in the darkest of places. For the one who laid his life down is the one who was raised. He is the one who declared, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live."