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Why So Distracted? Distraction by Damon Young

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Any shiny bauble catches my eye.11132013-tumblr_mvsq94YlZG1qe0lqqo1_500

Any bare wisp of an idea pulls me from a thought-intensive task.

Is there a book I’ve not read? Let me order it right now, in the middle of this sentence.

I am easily distracted.

I am not alone in this.

I recently had the distinct joy of slowly reading Distraction by Damon Young.  I followed Mortimer Adler’s advice in his lovely How To Read a Book (I should reread that—let me order it right now), which often leads to relaxed hours of thoughtful graffiti in a bound book.

I’ve written about Mr. Young’s book before, like here and here. But now that I’ve gone through it a second time, made annotations, outlined his argument, tweeted the author (twice) (now thrice), ordered half a dozen of his suggested books and quibbled about and finally recommended it to friends and family, I need to look at my own patterns of distraction before disengaging from the book’s orbit.

First:  Mr. Young did a good job explaining why it is we are easily distracted and, in fact, why seek out distractions. The short answer is that we seem to recoil from our life purpose. As free people we choose where we spend our time (or at least how we spend our otium). We can spend it sorting out our life purpose. Or not. But we have to know our life purpose. And that takes work, which is why distractions are often so preferred to focus.

The longer answer is to look at the smart and thoughtful writers, poets and artists Mr. Young researched to see how they were distracted and how they attempted to focus. His stories brought to life Heidegger, T.S. Eliot, Nietzsche, Matisse and Henry James and many others (especially Plato). That’s why Distraction is fun to read (are stories always magnetic?)

Second: toward the end, Mr. Young cites the notion of gratefulness. That set me to wondering whether thanks needs a being at the other end. Young, a [critical but] sympathetic atheist, pointed to giving thanks as a primary building block for the undistracted life. But not the thanks of the poor to the benefactor for relief from a low condition. Instead:

…there is a primordial, anonymous gratitude, not to a patron or a savior but for the simple fact of existence itself. If we cannot choose our birth, or vault the impermeable barriers of place and time, we can still warm to the existential endeavor; we can smile at the opportunity to live, instead of flinching or close our eyes.

Thanks, for Mr. Young, is a bold “Yes!” to all the stuff of life:

But at its most profound, this is a simple, primal yes: to the attempt, the aspiration, the lurch towards freedom. To seek emancipation from distraction is to accept this ambivalent liberty – an unspoken, unrepentant thank you for the adventure of becoming. (160)

But is there such a thing as “anonymous gratitude”?09032013-9781844652549_p0_v2_s260x420

Maybe: friends have thanked the universe for bestowing good fortune on them. And certainly developing a generally grateful attitude to the stuff of life makes rational sense. But for me “thanks” minus the Almighty is like leaving Minneapolis intending to drive to Des Moines but finding yourself living for decades in Ankeny without ever having reached Des Moines (surely you know the splendors of Des Moines, Iowa).

But that’s just me. I greatly respect Mr. Young’s marvelous book and I agree that thankfulness opens the quintessential way of living. Thankfulness puts all other things in perspective, which is the essence of focus.


Image credit: Robert Huber via MPD

Written by kirkistan

November 13, 2013 at 8:28 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] Answer: one may run but one cannot forever hide from one’s life purpose. For me the big questions reasserted in the regular world most of us live in (versus a churchy, […]

  2. […] what you’ve repeatedly failed at. To step away from engagement—or its tiresome cousin, distraction—is to take your brain pan off the fire for a moment. All the whirring bits and quarter-thoughts […]

  3. […] over the long haul. Gratitude seems a potential route to rekindled desire—on this point, both my atheist friend and the poet-king agree. A good conversation with a person full of life may rekindle […]

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