December 17, 2018
Dear Columbus Academy Families,
I have a confession to make. I have been trying to finish a book, one book, since August. And the fact that I feel either too undisciplined or too overscheduled to just read it is bothering me... unreasonably.
So, instead of reading it I have been examining why I can't seem to read it, which has led me to a number of observations and ideas about my attention: where it gets spent and what paying attention means in a world that is sped up and cluttered with attention-getting stuff.
John Green, a Kenyon graduate and author of the young-adult-novel-turned-movie The Fault in our Stars, recently claimed he was getting off social media for a year. "I find myself constantly scrolling, swiping, clicking, scanning, skimming..." he explained, "with my attention fractured and feeling a constant pull towards refreshing and checking and refreshing again as if something truly fresh was just over the horizon."
"My attention is all I have," he argues and says that he is increasingly uncomfortable with the way internet companies are incentivized to first capture his attention, then hold it and monetize it through advertising (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zlYoOmoH5U).
As the world continues to reward quickness over truth, deliberation and quiet, I too am finding it harder for my brain to sink into reading, writing or reflecting for any meaningful length of time. While those who know me may agree I can be easily distracted, I don't think I am alone in this dilemma.
It's as if the deal that has to be struck between the part of my brain that likes to Google and the part that carves out space to read for understanding and nuance is getting more difficult to negotiate. I don't have to tell you which side is winning as the acclaimed novel gains dust on my nightstand. Just ask those brief journal articles my colleagues suggest, or pithy essays in magazines as they leap into my hands at bedtime like wispy paper hares jumping over a hardbound tortoise.
If our attention is a rare commodity cheaply won by the internet as Green suggests, I have increased respect for the battles being fought in our students' brains. For the youngest children to full-grown adolescents, their screens, their lives and their measures of worth in a thriving economy become hourly sieges to get them to glance, click or swipe like a never-ending virtual tour of empty neon on the Vegas Strip.
And school -- because of our slower, more intentionally careful ways -- becomes a seriously important respite from this flavor-of-the-minute-world. Here, we spend time having lengthy discussions, waiting our turn, sharing with our entire class in a circle, stomping off into the woods or painting quietly for an hour. Here we take things at a human pace -- like the speed of a good book -- developing plot and characters, slowly adding believable quirks and unbelievable complications so, while nothing ends in a neat narrative, the experience is rich and deep and satisfying.
I have been hounded by the truism love is the quality of the attention we pay to things (McClatchy) as weeks pass with my bookmark unmoved. I love reading. There are few experiences like the entranced feeling of becoming deeply enveloped in a wonderful story. But recently, when it comes to paying attention, I think I have been trading incremental consumption for quality without ever really taking command of that choice. The digital world urges me to do it, and I am rewarded with push notifications and updates that drive my fractured attention back to whatever image I struggled to leave in the first place.
In this age of convenience and immediacy, I wonder if we surrender too much of our best attention with the ease of it all. It is too easy to give our children phones when they are young and then justify our losing their attention with a false sense of gain in their safety or connection. It is much too easy to allow ourselves to swing from one news feed or buying spree to another without realizing we are abdicating our most basic human feature, our conscious mind. And we easily can fall for the quick answer, the obvious blame or the tidy conclusion if we are not paying close enough attention to details which take longer to completely understand.
No surprise that I plan to finish my book over winter break. And while I will have some genuinely uninterrupted time, I know I will need to be far away from my phone, computer or iPad so my brain can reflect and think in the ways it has been designed to do that work.
I hope you join me.