21 July 2013

A World of Distractions

Barry Ritholtz, "How To Focus in an Age of Distractions"
Luke 10: 38-42

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost/ July 21, 2013

When I sent out the worship preview on Friday I included a chaotic looking diagram that attempts to map all the ways we try and fail to maintain focus in our lives. At the center is an image of a man touching his temples, as if to soothe a headache, with a caption that reads, “How to focus in the age of distraction.”   Around him are all the various ways we try to organize and focus our lives, only to discover that all these schemes become further distractions.  We create rituals or habits around how we begin our day or how we end our day.  We manage how and when we respond to email.  We take the time to reflect and review the day and come up with ideas to make tomorrow even more efficient, even more productive.  We have lists—and lists for lists.   We schedule time for digital technology detox—no television, no Facebook, no email, smart phones.  We try to enjoy more time with our family and friends.  We organize all the paper in our home and office, get rid of clutter, make sure all the dishes are clean and empty the sink before we leave the house in the morning.  We’ll eat better.  Sleep better.  Make time for exercise.  Make time for prayer, for worship.  We set up strategies to help us focus, but it seems the more we do these the more difficult it is to be focused.

            Can you relate?  Is this how you feel? Do have a headache just thinking about all of this?  You’re not alone. 

            How do we focus in this age of distraction? It’s even more demanding for those who struggle with Attention Deficit Disorder. There’s always someone or something vying for our attention, pulling us away from the things and people that matter most in our lives.  We’re running in ten thousand directions all at the same time.  We’re being pulled in so many different directions that it’s difficult to focus. And when we ignore or neglect the things and people worthy of our time the guilt and the shame set in.  The guilt and shame are fueled by anxiety, which seems to be a steady hum underneath everything these days.

            Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany could have happened yesterday.  It has a contemporary feel to it, doesn’t it?  It’s a remarkable visit, a remarkable conversation that occurs here in only four verses—four verses intentionally placed by Luke between the story of the lawyer who was anxious about inheriting eternal life, to which Jesus provided the radical Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), as we saw last week, followed by Jesus’ teaching on prayer, showing us how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-13).

            Mary and Martha are a study in contrasts.  Martha welcomes Jesus into their home.  She extends hospitality.  She does what is expected of her.  Mary takes a break from her work, sits at Jesus’ feet, and listens to what he has to say.  It’s easy to pit them against each other. Martha represents the active life, the worker-bee, the go-getter.  Mary represents the contemplative life, passive, lackadaisical, maybe a mystic.  Jesus obviously favors Mary’s way of being. But it’s not simply either-or here.  Both of these personality types have value.  Although they are both women, these types have little to do with gender.  There’s a Martha and Mary in each of us. 

            That said, because of the way the text is constructed, it’s the Martha-type that Jesus is most concerned about—not because it’s wrong or sinful—but because Jesus knows the way Martha’s moving through her life is hindering her from being attentive to what is right before her very eyes.  She can’t see because she’s distracted.  She can’t focus her attention on God’s visitation where she lives because, in a sense, she’s not home, she’s not there. She’s some place else in her head.  She can’t be in the moment. She’s in the future, considering what has to be done. Therefore she can’t be attentive to what’s moving right in front of her.

            Why is Martha like this?  It’s clear that she resents Mary.  So where does resentment come from?  Resentment is often connected to jealously.  And jealously is often a vector of desire, that is, it indicates what we really want for ourselves.  Did Martha harbor a secret desire to be more like Mary?  Perhaps knowing how difficult that would be for her, to be like Mary, Martha feels unappreciated for what she does contribute to the running of the household.  When we feel unappreciated, it seems like no one really understands us, no one cares about us.  Her resentment toward Mary then spills over toward Jesus.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”  Is she now lumping Mary and Jesus together here, implying that he, too, doesn’t care?  Is she suggesting that he, too, doesn’t appreciate “all the work” she’s doing?

            “All the work by myself,” Martha says.  Well, that’s what she says.  But is she telling the truth?  Is she really doing “all the work” by herself?   It sounds like she’s having a pity party.  It sounds like exaggeration.  If it is, then exaggeration is often a mask meant to cover over or hide something, that prevents others from seeing what’s really going on there underneath.  How much of “all the work” is really necessary work?  How much is unnecessary?  

            It’s clear that Martha likes to keep busy and she values being busy and expects others to be just like her—task oriented, driven, busy—and she’s quick to judge others who don’t measure up the same way.  She’s so bothered by this that she pulls Jesus into her frustration—“you tell her.”  This is a classic triangulation move, which is never healthy in interpersonal relations. Triangulation is when you ask someone to say or do something that you’re unwilling to say or do yourself directly.  Triangulation is never good.

            On the other hand, Mary could just be lazy and Martha knows it.  Maybe Mary has always been allergic to work.  Maybe Mary has always been a dreamer and never had much of a drive.  We don’t know.  Maybe she’s bored by housework and chores and hungers for something more that Jesus now represent?  We’re not sure.

            It’s clear, though:  Martha is the busy-bee in the house.  An admirable quality, to be sure!  But every quality, indeed every virtue, also has a shadow side. In our age we think the busy person is important. We might complain about being busy all the time, but some actually thrive on it. We want to be seen as busy, we don’t want to be seen by anyone, especially our boss, as being inactive, doing nothing.  The more we do, the busier we are, and the more important we think we are.

            A lot of pastors fall into this trap.  A friend calls this the Busy Pastor Syndrome. How are you, pastor?  How are things at the church?  “Oh, busy, very busy, crazy busy. So much is going on at the church. We’re just crazy busy.” (Meaning, I’m busy therefore I’m important.)  But what does it really mean to be busy?

            Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes busyness is a compulsion, a compulsion that hides a mass of insecurities and fears. Writing last year in The New York Times, Tim Kreider suggests that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

            A hedge against emptiness.  Is that what our busyness really is?  Is that why we’re so distracted? We might complain about distractions, having difficulty focusing, but I wonder if at an unconscious level the opposite is really closer to the truth: we want to be distracted, we don’t want to be focused or attentive to what’s before us.  There’s considerable anxiety under all of this, I know. For what if I don’t like what I find, what if I don’t like what I’m feeling when I stop, when I’m focused and aware?  What if it’s all empty, all hollow underneath?  What then?

            The Greek word used here for distraction means to be pulled or dragged away, drawn in different directions.  When this happens it feels as if we’re being determined by some power or force that is pulling us away from the center.  It’s like being in the sway or under the influence of an orbital force, a kind of gravitational pull, a force that overwhelms us and hinders our ability to pull away.  Even if want to pull away, we can’t.  We’re trapped.

            Psychologists have a word for this:  complex.  A complex is the concentration of energy around an emotionally-charge experience, memory, fear, or anxiety.  A complex is made up of “psychic elements—ideas, opinions, convictions—that are grouped around emotionally sensitive areas.”[1] All of this is going on in the unconscious.  When we are in the thrall of a complex—and we all have them, many of them—we feel like we’re in the grip of something.  Actually, you don’t have a complex; a complex has you.  For example, we’re going along in our day, something happens, someone says something, a changed mood sweeps over us.  That’s a complex. When a complex has us we might feel caught or trapped or hindered.  We might say something that we really don’t want to say, or do something out of character. You can hear it in the language we use, “Something came over me and I don’t know why I said that… or did that….” Most significantly, a complex often usurps our ability to choose or act in a way that we wish. As a result a complex can hinder us from seeing and living in reality.

            As I was reading the text again this week, it felt like Martha was caught in a complex.  We might call this the Martha Complex. It’s clear that she’s in a state, frustrated, resentful, feeling unappreciated, full of activity—but what’s going on under the surface?  What’s stirring there?  Why is Martha so anxious? What’s hindering her from choosing wisely?  This obviously wasn’t an issue for Mary.  Mary chose wisely.  And what she has cannot be taken away from her (Lk 10:42).  This means that Martha chose unwisely.  Martha’s caught up in her “stuff,” her “stuff” colors what she sees and informs her choices. As a result she misses what’s there before her, she misses the Holy in her midst.

            And what does Jesus do?  “Martha, Martha”—did he take her by the arms, I wonder, crossing her path, holding her shoulders, speaking directly into her eyes?  “Martha, Martha, stop. Look at me.  Let me look at you”—as if to break the spell of the complex, discharging its energy—“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  This really isn’t about all the work and the chores, is it?  You are worried, concerned, anxious.”  The Greek here suggests that her mind was agitated.  You’re freighted with care, Martha.”

            “There is only one thing needed.”  Jesus said. When we’re worried and distracted, we’re pulled in ten thousand directions and pulled away from the one thing needed:  to dwell lovingly in the presence of God, to sit at Jesus’ feet, to be attentive to him, to God, to the movement of the Spirit within our hearts.  Or to put it a different way, this is a life grounded and centered in God. This is what matters most.  This is what our souls hunger for.  When we are distracted and worried, we get pulled away from the One who holds us and sustains us. 

            We need more opportunities in our lives to just stop. Who are we when we remove the distractions? What’s left?  When we’re not working—work, too, can be a distraction—who are we, who is left?  Do you know who is left? Who is left is the real self, the true you; the authentic self that wants to dwell in the presence of God and it’s this deeper, authentic self—the true you—that God desires to be in a relationship with, less the busy, compulsive, anxious self.

            So what do we do with the distractions? We can try to come up with strategies to remove them.  Or, how about just taking the time to stop, to pray, simply be with God? To get to that place of being with God we need to embrace silence—we need much more silence in our lives.  That’s why contemplative practices and worship experiences such as Taizé, which incorporates fifteen minutes (or longer) of silence into the service, are so essential in our lives.   

            When we enter the silence we come to know what Hinduism correctly calls “the monkey brain,” it’s our brains, our minds running in nonstop activity with no direction or purpose.  When I was in India several weeks ago I had monkeys living all around my cottage.  They were out in the front yard, up in the trees, chasing each other over the roof of the cottage.  They were frenetic and always nervous, hyper vigilant.  In the silence we will meet our monkey brains, then we’ll see just how distracted we really are.

            It makes sense why the parable about loving one’s neighbor as oneself and loving God are followed by Jesus’ teaching on prayer.  That should tell us something.  Prayer, especially silent prayer, actually allows us to be more focused and less distracted.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) said (or at least attributed to him):  "Work, work, from morning until late at night.  In fact, I have so much to do that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer." And silent prayer, in particular, dwelling in God, can actually help release us from some of our complexes.  When we are silent before God, with silence focused, it’s remarkable how less distracted we become, how more focused we become.

            The bulletin reads:  sermon then a season of silence.  But I want to make the silence part of the sermon by providing an opportunity to practice what I’ve been preaching: to be still, to dwell in God’s presence.  So let us enter into a season of silence. As a guide through this time, you might wish to read slowly to yourself Edwina Gateley’s poem “Let Your God Love You.” So let us be silent and be still:

Be silent.
Be still.
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—
Love you.

[1] June Singer, Boundaries of the Soul:  The Practice of Jung’s Psychology (New York:  Anchor Books, 1994), 43ff.  Jungian analytic theory was originally known as complex psychology.

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