Why Do We Want to Be Distracted?

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I haven’t written in a while. I wanted to write this post months ago, but with cruel irony, my mind was too cluttered to find the creative space needed to write an article about technology and isolation. I found myself succumbing to the very giant I wanted to encourage others to tackle, which I suppose could disqualify me from writing this article. But my own fight also means that I feel deeply about how technology can eat away at our lives. Frankly, I’m looking for revenge; I want others to avoid the loneliness and mental dead space I’ve too often succumbed to. The moments I’ve been able to declutter and actually think about my life have been amazing; you should want the same thing if you don’t already have it. 

It’s nothing new for me to be talking about technology; I’ve written a whole series on it before (see here). My recent bouts with tech overuse didn’t happen because I was unaware of the pitfalls. But when I wrote my series, it was at a time when my life was going well and it was easy to be optimistic. I recognized that my phone kept pulling me away from the things I actually enjoyed in life, so I wanted to ensure I was actually mentally present for the things that mean most. The past couple years of my life have been different. I’ve had a lot to process that hasn’t been easy; stepping away from my phone hasn’t led to the automatic richer enjoyment of life that it had in the past. In fact, often the empty space I’d find when I stepped away was terrifying. Yes, my senses were more alive to notice and feel everything around me, but often I didn’t like that. So my devices became a great way to keep me instantly engaged with something other than my own inner turmoil. It’s true that few things can make you feel worse about your life than wasting hours on random texting and surfing, but when you’re already quite down to start with, it seems like the price might be worth it. It’s a nasty cycle, though. Sooner or later, we have to face real life—work, family, friends—and when our brains feel fried, we easily succumb to second rate behavior that makes us feel even less upbeat about our lives. So when we feel bad about ourselves after a day at work or time hanging out with friends and family, how are we going to cope? Yes, even though we’re effectively shooting ourselves in the foot, we’re right back to our phones. We’ll feel better for a bit and postpone all the hard questions for another time. 

If I say that our phones are addictive and we need to learn to step away and control ourselves, I’m saying nothing new. I’m also not saying anything I haven’t constantly told myself through gritted teeth as I reach yet again for my phone. The problem is deeper than screen time limits or mustering up will power. As long as we want to be distracted and don’t feel able to face our lives, we’re going to get pulled back eventually. For myself, I took measures to combat my addiction. I even bought a lockbox with a timer that I lock up my phone in for hours. Breaking the box is the only way to get my phone out before the timer runs out (so far that hasn’t happened). That helps, but only to a point, because the moments I most want to be distracted are the moments I don’t put my phone in. And sometimes when I do lock it up, I find myself hankering after it, as if the best part of my day will be the moment it comes out. 

So what do we do? Taking measures isn’t enough. If the unrest in our souls is still there and unanswered, we’re going to keep coming back. Our phones exacerbate the problem, yes, but they haven’t created it. When I think about my life, I think about questions I’ve had to ask myself that would have been hard to face with a perfectly uncluttered mind. Have there been days where some kind of distraction was the only way I was going to get through the day without screaming? I think so. But there have also been days when I stopped trying to distract myself and allowed myself to face the hard questions. Sometimes feeling the hurt and pain is better than the dazed, not fully human condition we find ourselves in when we surrender to distraction. In short, we need to deeply believe that we’d rather be fully alive and aware of pain than distracted and avoidant. And yes, there are daily rituals we’ll want to implement to make sure our momentary impulses don’t control us. That’s the second step, though. 

Lest the reader think my life has been a litany of unmitigated disaster, it hasn’t. I’m happily married. I’ve consistently been surrounded by friends and family who are interesting, funny, and refreshingly real. I like my job, at least on most days, which is more than a lot of people can say. I’ve always had money in the bank and haven’t experienced any deaths close to home. In short, I’m quite blessed and not a candidate for sympathy cards. That doesn’t make the setbacks and disappointments I’ve faced seem any less real, though. What has been most trying hasn’t been the unfortunate external circumstances but the way they’ve threatened to eat away at my confidence and permanently damage heuristics that once helped me make sense out of life. Sometimes it feels like a lot is being stripped away before anything is there to replace it. And yes, a lot of these personal questions are closely tied to the things our team writes and podcasts about. How do we affirm tradition that is strong and worth defending while also acknowledging things that have gone wrong? How do we stand for truth in a chaotic age without getting sucked into unloving partisanship? These kinds of questions aren’t just theoretical; they come attached to real faces and vivid memories from our past. And ultimately, they often run through the center of our being, forcing us to acknowledge our own brokenness in deeply uncomfortable ways. 

I’m convinced that (almost) everyone reading this post has experienced some of what I’m talking about: the probing questions about identity and our faith and the frequent numbing of it all by getting on our phones. Perhaps underlying all of these struggles is a human tendency that’s been around long before phones: we live in a facade of our own making that avoids honesty with ourselves and others. That’s why it’s impossible to have this conversation without thinking about our communities and the ways they encourage (or discourage) deep but realistic sharing. Do we actually know the people at our church? Even closer to home, when my wife asks how my day went, do I give her a casual answer, or am I vulnerable enough to share some of the insecurities I’m facing? Often we’re craving these moments where everything stands still and we talk about what’s going on inside that has been hidden in the busyness of life. 

Often I find I need to be able to reflect on my own before I’m able to share with others the way I’d like. When we’re constantly busy or distracted, we wander away from our security in Christ. Even if I want to be vulnerable, if I haven’t had time to think, how do I know what to tell others? Sometimes the noise in our lives is masking questions we haven’t even acknowledged. Central in my own journey has been a recognition of how often I’m ashamed of myself. Perhaps it’s a subpar day at work or a passing comment that makes me wonder if other people think I’m stupid. Often there’s nothing rational about the way I’m triggered; I know it shouldn’t bug me, but I feel my body revolting and wanting to hide. Rarely if ever are these feelings actually about the minor incident that just happened; they were lying dormant waiting for something to push them over the edge. Of course these are the moments when I most want to pull out my phone. But I’m slowly learning that I should take these times as a reminder that something else is going on, that there’s a void in my soul that God wants to fill. Sometimes we need to meditate on the grace of God, reminding ourselves that he loves us at those moments when we feel embarrassed and insecure. 

Let’s consider the following passage: 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans‬ ‭8‬:‭1‬-‭4‬ ‭ESV

These are comforting words, but in order to feel their reality, we have to be walking in the Spirit. And how can we walk in the Spirit if our minds are constantly cluttered? I’m still in the middle of working through my own battle to find my voids filled by God and others instead of opting for the quick fix of tech distraction. Sure, it’s ironic, but those close to me may need to remind me to read my own post. 

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About the Author:

Drew Barnard is a musician, writer, and a lover of good conversation. He believes that a pursuit of God should lead to a whole-hearted engagement of the mind and emotions. Raised in a Christian home, Drew watched his parents move into the Anabaptist circles at a young age. After his father left the family when he was sixteen, Drew faced many questions about his purpose in life and learning how to discern God’s will. As a result of these experiences, he is passionate about seeing others faithfully serving Christ, regardless of trying circumstances.

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