What Is It That Most Distracts Us?

credit: dydcheung, Flickr

We think of distractions as coming mostly from the world around us, but is that really true? Consider the following, drawn from the stories of the early desert Fathers and monastic experience:

Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; not the Abbot, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”

The fact is, our greatest distraction is usually our very self. If this surprises us, we should probably chalk it up to pride. Why? Because what God wants us to focus on is outside and above us: in the beauty of creation, in the wonder of others, and in the magnificence of God. These are not distractions; they are often exactly what God is trying to say to us, to reveal to us.

St. Augustine described our essential problem as this: Homo incurvatus in se (man turned in on himself). In turning inward, a host of distracting questions assail us:

  I’m bored.
  I’m tired.
  What will I do next?
  What do people think of me?
  Do I fit in?
  Am I handsome/pretty enough?
  Have I made it?
  What does this have to do with me?
  What have you done for me lately?
  When will it be my turn?
  What about me?
  Why are people upsetting me? What gives them the right?

Yes, a thousand variations of these swim through our mind, most of them rooted in pride and its ugly stepsister, vanity.

As the story above teaches, however, it is the absence of self that brings truer serenity. Indeed, of this I am a witness, for my freest, most joyful, and most focused moments come when I am most forgetful of myself:

  When I am watching a movie that grips my attention and draws me outside of myself into the plot and the moments in the lives of others, even if fictional
  When I am powerfully aware of the presence of others and listening carefully to what they say.
  When I am in the company of close friends, an atmosphere in which I am less concerned with seeking approval, and can just relax in the moment, enjoying whatever is happening.
  In those moments of deep appreciation of the natural world, when I walk through a field and am captured by “the color purple” and am deeply moved by the beauty of God’s creation.
  In moments of deep and contemplative prayer when, by a gift of God, I forget about myself and am drawn deeply into the experience of Him.

In moments like these, God takes us (who are so easily turned inward) and turns us outward and upward. The myriad distractions that come from self-preoccupation hush for a time. In this state of “self-forgetfulness”, we are almost wholly present to others, to creation, and to God. The noisy din of anxious self-concern quiets, and our world opens up and out.

The Psalms often speak of God placing us in a spacious place (e.g., Ps 18:19, 31:8, 119:45, inter al). You have set my feet in a spacious place, O Lord (Ps 31:8). There is nothing more cramped than being turned in on ourselves.

Ask the Lord to set your feet in the wide spaces, to open you outward and upward. The worst distractions are not the noises outside us, but rather the noises within us, noises that come from being too self-preoccupied. The silence that we most crave is not found in the absence of sound, but in the absence of self-preoccupation.

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