Busyness doesn't mean you never stop. It means you don't stop stopping. Being distracted. Not finishing things. You're writing an email, then you're on Facebook. You're taking a photo, then twenty. You're trying to remember what is was you were just doing. I've experienced enough of this to make me believe the studies emerging about the rewiring of our brains in the information age to skim over texts, slowly diminishing our ability to focus on a novel or form complex thoughts. I think this when I open dozens of tabs on a browser and never get to half of them, or when I find myself on my phone wondering why I picked it up again. David Foster Wallace believed this type of distraction was a dark sign of some inner turmoil. Others aren't quite as harsh.
NewYorker.com published a stirring article a few weeks ago about distraction. It was a review of Matthew Crawford's new book, "The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction." (Crawford also wrote "Shop Class as Soul Craft," which a few men I know have enjoyed.) According to the review, the book's about the dilemma of not being able to focus our attention and what to do about it. It points out how always we talk about distraction in the passive voice -- I got distracted by -- when in reality we are the ones directing our own attention. And it talks about how the answer to this is to "double down...and attempt to sculpt a better you -- one in which distraction is replaced by attention," says reviewer Joshua Rothman. I haven't read the book, so from the article, I gather the message to be: modern technology is turning our brains to mush, so we must focus on some very hands-on tasks (Crawford's antidote is "a narrow range of manly skills," Rothman writes) to combat this.
But Rothman proposes a third solution predicated on the concept that we place way too much value on attention altogether. And I kind of agree with him. The last thing we need is more criticism and correctional instruction about how to behave. What if we accept that distraction is a part of human experience? What if we don't judge ourselves too harshly for wondering off track? What if we value it? Society has always had a place for the daydreamer, the cloudwatcher, the musician passing time with a song. Getting lost in tweets and Instagram feeds and clickbait headlines is not what I'd call distraction: it's our attempt to prevent it. It's our attempt to control the small bits of time standing in line, eating lunch in the office, winding down at the end of the day or waking up in the morning. It's our effort to not be idle, to not allow our minds to wonder away, untethered. Which, as it turns out, might be more important part of life than we think.
Sweet tomato jam recipe here.