Be Careful How Your Spend Your Attention
In September I posted an article on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a very popular podcast. My intention wasn’t to engage with the content of the show but rather to examine the effects such content might have on us as viewers. Mike Cosper’s work will undoubtedly prove invaluable for identifying dangerous trends in local churches and leaders. My purpose, however, was to warn against the modern fixation on controversy and our incessant need to voice outrage and self-righteous indignation. So I wrote: “What we put before our eyes and ears will shape us.” This was not to claim that we will all end up becoming abusive and manipulative leaders, leveraging authority for selfish gain and power. Rather, my post was a caution against the media we choose to consume; the things we give our attention to.
In recent years I’ve had many arguments with Christians both about how much media we consume and what we choose to consume—quantity and quality, if you will. Gladly running the risk of being labelled either a legalist or a Luddite, I’ve raised concerns over: blood sports (especially MMA); sexually explicit shows; and even the news. For, similarly to time, our attention is a limited resource. This means we must invest it carefully. Numerous writers have called for us to carefully consider what we pay attention, conceiving of it as an economic exercise. But more than simply being a non-renewable resource we often waste, how we invest our attention pays dividends in our own personal formation. In other words, what we give our attention to has a direct impact on who we become.
We’re Always Giving Our Attention Away
As I’ve thought and written about this theme, a passage from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has often come to mind. Haddon’s narrator, Christopher, has Aspergers. Thus he struggles in new and unfamiliar spaces because he cannot channel his attention. He observes everything. This is partly our problem today—especially since we married our smartphones and sold our souls to social media. But Christopher puts his finger on another issue many of us are probably unaware of. He writes: “Most people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction,” not unlike a snooker ball. In other words, we are constantly in pursuit of what is new, on trend, and highly recommended. That is where we invest our attention.
We are obsessed with the newest thing. More often than not this comes in the form of the latest series everyone is discussing. But our obsession is not limited to what we watch. The reason most of us can’t go more than an hour without checking into social media is because we’re anticipating something new that will inject excitement into our lives. We long for a significant event, to lend substance to our existence. To take a slightly different track, the unprecedented and rampant material consumerism that marks the 21st century is further proof that we are discontent unless we are losing ourselves and finding purpose in what is new. As Christopher says, “There are so many things just in one house that it would take years to think about all of them properly. And, also, a thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of it being new.”
We prodigiously pour out our attention on what is new, forgetting that novelty does not convey significance or value. On top of this, because we are forever in pursuit of the latest thing we fail to deliberately pause and reflect. As Nicholas Carr noted years ago, we paddle in the superficial shallows of the human experience. Meaningful engagement has given way to mindless entertainment. For the conveyor belt of so-called unmissable series rolls around relentlessly. Thanks to the infinite scroll on social media, we regularly spend 20 or 30 minutes on a few forgettable moments and mostly insignificant exchanges. Why are we so reckless with a commodity arguably more precious than money? Why do we give such little thought to how we invest our attention?
Steward Your Attention with Wisdom
For now, I will offer just one answer to those questions: we don’t believe that how we spend our attention nor that what we invest it in will significantly shape us. We ignore the undeniable link between doing and becoming; that “habit begets being.” For in addition to wasting our attention we are unconcerned about what the outcomes of carelessly investing it in the wrong things—too many things or the newest and trendiest ones. After discussing this post with a friend, she shared Proverbs 17:24 with me. It says: “The discerning sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.” Just like time, you only have so much attention to give, so be wise in how you steward it.