FOCUSED LIVING…in a world of distraction

I recently spoke at a conference down at Princeton Seminary on the topic of “Focused Living in a World of Distraction.”  Needless to say, the enemy of my soul has had a heyday in distracting me during my preparations! So I’ve prayed with the psalmist Turn my eyes from looking at what is worthless; give me life in Your ways.” Psalm 119.37 Do you ever find the ‘worthless’ clamoring for your focus? Often in driver’s education class students are taught that focusing their attention on oncoming headlights might cause them to drift into the wrong lane. This tendency holds true in many other aspects of life — we will be drawn to whatever gains our attention.

What bothers you about a world full of distractions? Personally, I hate to be talking to someone when their eyes are constantly darting around the room in search of a more interesting diversion. Their actions cause me to feel unimportant and even unnecessary. Are you “continually partially attentive” to a lot without being fully focused on anything? Have you finished reading one whole book lately? When did you last sit down for a period of time and look into your child or friend or spouse’s eyes and really listen to what they had to say? And, oh by the way, what scripture penetrated your heart this week from your devotions or worship or class – do you even remember it?

The word ‘distraction’ comes from the Latin distractus which literally means “to draw or pull apart.” In his book The Attentive Life, Leighton Ford says “It can have a very innocuous sense: a distraction can be an amusement or diversion that relaxes us. But more seriously a distraction is a pull away from what deep down we know is our most fundamental goal, purpose or direction. When we are distracted, we are often confused by conflicting emotions or worries. The more ‘noise’ that surrounds us, the more we absorb, the more likely we are to be distractible, our attention readily diverted and restless, and the more vulnerable we become to all the distractions around.”

Being distracted is not new to our day and age. My friend, Miriam Huffman Rockness, in her wonderful biography Passion for the Impossible, described Lilias Trotter who lived a life of art, privilege and leisure in London more than a hundred years ago. Even art critic John Ruskin enthusiastically proclaimed her as one of the best artists of the 19th century. But Lilias’ devotion to Christ compelled her to abandon that world for an entirely different life in Algeria, North Africa. There her love of literature and art became dynamic tools for evangelism and her compassionate lifestyle of love and encouragement captured the hearts of the Muslim people for 40 years. Her struggle (and eventual victory) in the whole area of finding focus inspired these words by hymnist Helen Lemmel in 1922: Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace”.

Lilias Trotter was quick to say that it is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. “Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Does this test not give the clue? Then dare to have it out with God. Dare to lay bare your whole life and being before Him, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His glory. Dare to face the fact that unfocused, good and useful as it may seem, it will prove to have failed of its purpose.”

What are your greatest distractions? For me, sometimes it’s in the juggling of too many things at one time – which has a 21st century term now. According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “continuous partial attentionmeans that while you are answering your email and talking to your kid, your cell phone rings and you have a conversation. You are now involved in a continual flow of interactions in which you can only partially concentrate on each . . . You’re never out anymore. The assumption is now that you’re always in . . . And when you’re always in, you are always on. And when you are always on, what are you most like? A computer server.”

Well, I am not a computer — I am a person! And though the lines between “much” and “meaningful” have blurred quite a bit, I am seeking clarity by “fixing my eyes on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of my faith.” Hebrews 12.2.

Since I’m basically a practical person, I therefore need practical ways to combat the whole sense of too-much-to-do-and-not-enough-of-me. How do I fix my eyes on the meaningful and take them off the much? Years ago I developed a system to help me in this struggle; I call it “selective neglect.” Knowing that I can’t do everything in front of me, even everything good, I make a deliberate decision what I will not do. In other words, I decide to selectively neglect something so that I can deliberately focus on the more important task or situation or person at hand. For instance, any given day I might have a list of 10 very good and worthy things to do, but that’s not even bringing into account unforeseen interruptions which can also be of God. So, as part of my morning prayers I offer up my agenda to God and ask that He guide me in the essentials, leaving the rest for another day or (heaven forbid) another one of His servants to cover. That leaves me with perhaps two or three ‘must dos’ and the rest only ‘possibilities’. Knowing my limitations, I wouldn’t have been able to get to it all by the end of the day anyway, so why not let me be the one to decide what will be neglected.

Our friend, Lilias Trotter, illustrated this principle many years ago when she said “What does this focusing mean? Study the matter and you will see that it means two things–gathering in all that can be gathered, and letting the rest drop. You have to choose which you will fix your gaze upon and let the other go.”

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope  of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His vast strength.” Ephesians 1.18-19

under the mercy, Cindy

©2010 Lucinda Secrest McDowell

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3 Responses to FOCUSED LIVING…in a world of distraction

  1. Betsy West says:

    Thank you, Cindy! I needed that!

  2. Cindy I so appreciate the analysis of the problem as well as the practical suggestions. Did you see in the article “Attention Deficit Culture” in Faith and Culture Devotional that research confirms that multi-tasking is not as efficient as focusing on one thing at a time?

    Also, the overwhelming msg of Scripture is to honor people. Surely we honor most fully by giving the gift of our presence to another person. Easy to say; hard to do. I wonder if, in today’s culture, giving our presence to another person for the sake of Christ should be thought of as a new spiritual discipline. Thoughts?

  3. maggierowe says:

    Great post Cindy. “Continuous partial attention” is the malady of our age, especially when it comes to our children. And I’m afraid they have learned it from their parents as we try to do so much at once.

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