The season of Lent generally seems a long haul, all the more so when Easter is early (31 March this year) and you have to turn your thoughts to self-denial and self-improvement in the middle of February. These days there seems to be an expectation that you should take on something new in Lent, rather than give up an indulgence, and indeed one feels there ought to be more to it than not eating chocolate for a few weeks.
So this year I have picked up Abiding by Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London) the 2013 Lent book recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a foreward by his predecessor Rowan Williams. Of course I have only just begun it (the first chapter ‘Abiding in the Body’ looks at the implications of the Benedictine Rule of remaining in one community for life), but even the book’s title made me think of how diminished ‘staying power’ is these days – not least mine.
For one thing it’s obvious that technology is having an impact on our attention spans – although Nicholas Carr’s book on the subject The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains aroused some debate a couple of years ago.
I first noticed it in the younger generation – the tendency to have a dozen search engine tabs open, always to have music and Facebook on and to keep up a text conversation with several friends whist doing homework. But as I have caught up with the technological innovations I have to admit that I have become just as guilty of flitting from one thing to another. And no, it’s not multi-tasking, it’s a lack of concentrated effort and focus. It’s insidious, and quickly transfers to other activities: if I’m drawn to a newspaper article by its headline, I’ll read the first couple of paragraphs and skip to the end to see what the conclusion is. If I then decide the middle is worth reading, I still jump around in it, so the ideas become a jumble and I have to start all over again.
The laptop, smartphone and tablet devices make it all too easy to feed an addiction to doing a lot of things at once and not really concentrating on any of them. You watch the news on TV while checking emails, social media and other news stories at the same time. When there’s a TV drama or big event going on, Twitter is there to let you find out what ‘everyone else’ is thinking about it – just search for ‘#bigevent’ and add your own twopence worth.
If you don’t do it, living with someone who does is highly aggravating, but once you start it just becomes second nature.
Therefore one thing I have given up for Lent is Twitter, initially because it’s a right old timewaster however much you kid yourself that it’s about keeping up with the news and opinion. Subsequently I realised it’s just one aspect of Flitting Attention Syndrome, and this is only exacerbated by one’s general rush to get things done in the least time.
The Slow Food movement started in Northern Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to over-processed, over-transported junk food. It seems to me that Slow Food has a parallel in lectio divina – divine reading – another element of the Benedictine way of life. It’s a process of reading and re-reading a short Bible passage so that you can fully appreciate the layers of meaning and take on board what it may be saying to you at that moment. A form of Slow Reading, as it were – easy enough to describe, much harder to do.
It occurs to me that it herein lies another Lenten discipline – to slow down and pay attention. If I pick up an article, to read it properly from start to finish. To focus on one thing at a time for as long as it takes to reach a conclusion or natural break-point. To resist the urge to flit to something else and the siren call of the alternatives offered by that handy attention-seeking computer device.