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Paying Attention in a Distracted and Distracting World

If you spend enough time with those dedicated to addressing the urgent issues of our time, you will eventually hear that we need to get people to ‘pay attention’.  Whether you and your friends are urging your city council to curb urban sprawl, encouraging your church to dedicate funds to alleviate global hunger, or organizing your school to take action against racial injustice, it’s easy to lament that nobody is noticing what’s going on.  Nobody is seeing what’s going on!  We need to get people to look and see what’s happening!  How can we get people to pay attention? 

I’ve been a part of these conversations.  I’ve felt disappointed at low turnout for social justice events, and asked ‘How can we get more people to pay attention?’  I’ve been part of community organizing campaigns to safeguard farmland in my city or to make my provincial prison system less punitive and more restorative, and so I’ve had to ask ‘How can we get people’s attention?’

In this world, our attention is always diverted elsewhere.  Time, too, starts to feel different. 

I recently read (about three years late . . . I guess I wasn’t paying attention) the artist Jenny Odell’s essay ‘Can We Slow Down Time in the Age of TikTok?’, based on her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Odell’s excellent essay had me revisiting the idea of ‘attention’ – both my own attention, and others’.  

Odell argues that the social media and smartphone age is, at its core, an attention economy: social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, websites, and online retailers thrive when our attention is always diverted elsewhere, leaving us more vulnerable to the advertising that drives most of those platforms.  As Odell puts it: “Much of [our} time is taken up by advertising content, platforms and experiences that are cynically made to capture their attention on a device that is always at arm’s length.”    In this world, our attention is always diverted elsewhere.  Time, too, starts to feel different.  Again, as Odell puts it: “With nonstop dystopian news alerts and infinite social media feeds to refresh, the attention economy makes time feel contracted into an endless and urgent present.”

Odell’s descriptions ring true, especially the last one.  News of so many environmental and social crises, conflicts, and disasters come our way that time feels like an ‘endless and urgent present’ that demands action.  But how do we take action, when so many issues from so many places vie for our resources and time?  

[This] prompted me to wonder whether part of my responsibility to them is to encourage them to ‘slow down’

For Odell, the attention economy pushes us away from what really matters – living humanely in the world with a strong commitment to those around us – especially those who are suffering.  Or, we could say, we are distracted from living Spirit-inspired, human and humane lives . . . Christ-like lives.  

Odell’s essay made me wonder whether our pleas for others to ‘pay attention’ to this or that issue contribute to the sense that time is an ‘endless and urgent present’.  I wonder: does the constant sense that we must know what’s going on and who is suffering and what’s behind it all distract us from taking long-term, sustainable action on any one issue?  Does the plea to pay attention to all these issues all of the time overwhelm us and so stop us from taking any action at all.  When we plead for people to ‘pay attention’, are we urging our neighbours to really attend to the suffering people and places in front of that so that they can work towards their flourishing?  

How can I slow down enough to pay attention to your world and those who are suffering in it?

I work with students, trying to encourage them to live Christ-inspired lives of justice, peace, and mercy in a world of hunger, suffering, and violence.  Odell’s essay prompted me to wonder whether part of my responsibility to them is to encourage them to ‘slow down’ – and giving them the space to do just that.  By slowing down, maybe they will be better able to hear the cries of the people and creation around them – a suffering watershed, a distressed forest, an oppressed people group in their city, a neighbour living quietly in poverty.  

So here are the questions I’m asking, as I get ready to meet another group of students eager to change their world for the better.  Maybe these questions will resonate with you.

How can I slow down enough to pay attention to your world and those who are suffering in it?  How can I help others to do the same?  To what can I say ‘no’, so I can say ‘yes’ to what matters?  What practical changes do I need to make so that I can live humanely, as a servant-neighbour, in such a distracted and distracted world?      

Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash


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