distraction and the discipline of presence

When my children were little, I noticed an interesting behavior pattern. If we started the day with TV, it was difficult to get them to take interest in anything else — including each other — for the rest of the day.

I hated this, because it meant I had to be on my A-game for the first hour after they woke up because asking and needing began the moment their eyes opened.

It was so very, very tempting to hush and soothe them with Little Bear while I changed diapers and got sippy cups — and it meant I could probably close my eyes for just a few more minutes and snuggle with whichever of the four climbed into my lap while the rest stayed contentedly mesmerized.

When the weather was good, the extra eyes-half-open doze through a few episodes wasn’t too detrimental to the flow of the day. They could always be diverted by dirt.

But if it was rainy, which of course it was 99% of the first year we lived in Tacoma, well, Game Over. It was either let them watch a video or referee endless fights over Lego pieces, Hotwheels, gummy fruits, and all the “he said I couldn’t do its” they could dole out (apparently, this is the worst thing brothers can say to each other; it either turns into a dare or a brawl).

TV was a buffer. A babysitter. A break. I’m not knocking it. I might owe some of my sanity to my children’s two-year-old vhs/dvd obsessions, which were, in order: 101 Dalmations, Toy Story 2The Iron Giant, and Finding Nemo. (My kids watched Finding Nemo a lot…lucky me, baby #4 turned out to be a terrible sleeper.)

What I’ve discovered, however, is that if we repeatedly soothe our kids with video in all its forms when they are small, they are very likely to soothe themselves with it when they are older.

When my oldest ones became teenagers, “Turn off the TV!” was my delightfully judgmental greeting to them the minute I walked in the door from work. I say it often. I say it to myself.

Train up a child…

A few generations of us have been doing this for a very long time now. Watching numbs us to exercise, chores, homework.  We turn on the TV for background noise, for something to talk about when the conversation lags.

And if we’ve been distracting ourselves, numbing ourselves, soothing ourselves for most of our lives with TV, Netflix, whatever, it’s just second nature to need it to unwind, to avoid loneliness, to avoid sorrow. Just like in the toddler years, distraction can be a welcome relief.

But if you’re anything like me, maybe it’s become a problem.

A few years ago, like practically everyone I know, I picked up the habit of scrolling through my smart phone if I woke up in the night and couldn’t sleep. Just a warmer and cozier way to do what I’d done since 1995 when the Internet made Craigslist my new best friend.

And streaming Netflix?

I streamed five seasons of Madmen in the wee hours of the morning for three weeks before my daughter went to college. Don’t judge me for it. I judge myself. Madmen had all the “charm” of midnight in a 70’s bowling alley — smoky, boozy, sexy. Way, way too much depravity for me. But, I do have a weakness for the well-written drama, and I was a copywriter on the creative team of a marketing agency, and Peggy’s copywriting woes in season 3… well, I could relate.

Distraction. I wanted distraction and entertainment so I didn’t have to feel all the feelings of letting go.

A few months later, a dear friend and I began to talk and read about giving God space in our minds and hearts and how sometimes that means feeling the feelings we’ve tried to numb and asking God to heal hurt and being patient while He does and not trying continuously to pour on our own temporary anesthetic. To ask God to awaken us to the present, to live in the present, and to take it as it is. To be okay being uncomfortable. To be attentive to our lives.

This is an exercise — a prayer — I have to come back to again and again because numbing is my default.

Awareness of God’s presence. A prayer I would BE present in my own life.  That days would not be for “getting through” but for real, active living.

And it’s a prayer best prayed the moment I wake up. A simple word: presence.

Because if I start the day catching up on the latest Downton Abbey, and then remember that when I asked a friend “what are we all going to do when this is over” his response was “Poldark,” I will have to check it out. And what do you know, the whole first season is free on Amazon Prime…

Game. Over.

(“Wow! Mom did all of our laundry! Thank you so much, mom!” Say the teenagers, usually required to do own laundry. Who knew we had a whole Poldark season’s worth of dirty clothes?)

* * * * *

Don’t you envy people who live off the grid? Don’t you think, “If I could just toss all my electronics in a landfill I’d be happier”?

I kind of do.

But I wonder…

Would we just fill our minds with something else? With novels? With nature? (Sign. Me. Up.)

I think we would.

Because the adversary is bent on distraction, and it would still take discipline to open my eyes and see.

I need that discipline.

* * * * *

P.S. If Pixar’s Wall-E (oh the irony) was too subtle a critique on distraction, consider reading Neil Postman’s book, written in 1985, entitled Amusing Ourselves to DeathTo be honest, it’s too much for me and makes me feel trapped in the Matrix. I prefer Walden because it just seems easier to flee. But that’s not 21st century reality. Somehow, we have to reclaim our lives from distraction right where we are.

Here’s a little taste of Neil (remember, this was written long before we could carry our entertainment in the palm of our hands):

“The number of hours the average American watches TV has remained steady, at about four and a half hours a day, every day (by age sixty-five, a person will have spent twelve uninterrupted years in front of the TV).”

“…No medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are… This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”

“It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”

“People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985