Our Ever-Shortening Attention Span

I occasionally have brilliant thoughts. At least I’m convinced that they’re brilliant. They usually come at the most inopportune moments—as I’m falling asleep, while I’m driving, while I’m daydreaming in church—never at a time when I can sit down and write them out, and never at a time when I have my entire brain available to sort through them and make them complete. I’ll even make detailed mental notes, telling myself to go back and remember them later, but that never really works.

The reason I feel comfortable telling you that I have these brilliant thoughts is because I’m sure that you have them to—we all do. But sometimes trying to capture them is like chasing a ghost, or trying so hard to remember a dream that was vivid just moments before you opened your eyes. It’s there, but you can’t quite grab it.

Since I’m already telling you how brilliant I am, let me also go ahead and tell you what I’ve been trying to work on for the past year and a half: a book. That’s right, friends; I’ve been taking my turn at the "Great American Novel," which I believe it is every American’s duty to try and write. Good literature is always about freedom or oppression, the cornerstones of our America.

Now, the inability to harness my brilliance, doubled with a lacking attention span, has made this endeavor quite difficult and nearly impossible. I might have settled down a bit now, refocused things, but there was a time there a while back when trying to write sent my brain into shock. I could not, however badly I wanted to, focus my thoughts. I could not get past a few paragraphs without wondering and worrying about what I was going to say on the next page, or the page after that, or—good heavens!—the 200 pages after that.

But I’m not too worried about my sanity because according to what I hear, a lot of people have problems paying attention these days. Our collectively short attention span has even gotten its own medical diagnosis, complete with medication.

I don’t know what it is that distracts us so much. I don’t know what it is that makes people so rapidly lose interest in jobs, marriages, hobbies, conversations, books—half the time I skim newspaper articles because I don’t feel like reading the whole thing. I don’t know what it is that is so important that we can’t wait to get done with what we’re currently doing so that we can move on to the new thing.

Personally, I could use someone to blame. I would like to blame society, or MTV. I could blame Fox News and CNN for their short-and-to-the-point news pieces. I could blame genetics and start taking medication, but I don’t like the thought of dependency. I could blame the advertising industry, video games, people who turn books into movies, Cliffs Notes, Reader’s Digest abridged novels, coffee, the internet, three-minute pop songs or text messaging. I’m sure that I could blame any or all of these things and that I could get away with it, but that wouldn’t solve anything.

No, the real problem is inside of me. And it’s not impatience, it’s dissatisfaction with the work. Satisfied people are patient people. They stay where they are and they excel at what that they do. People who stay in good marriages for fifty years, they do it because they’re satisfied. People who retire after thirty-five years of work in one place, they generally like what they do. People who do good, quality artistic work, they do it not because they were patient enough to finish it, but because they were happy to be there working on it everyday, even when the work was hard.

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I wouldn’t be stepping out on a limb by saying that we, as a culture, are generally dissatisfied. And it’s sad that I wouldn’t be stepping out on a limb by saying that. We have taken great steps in entertainment, technology and medicine to see to it that we can satisfy whatever need we might have. Where did we fail? Perhaps by assuming too much. Perhaps we failed by forgetting that people don’t need technology to be satisfied. We failed by mistaking temporary satisfaction for true happiness, whether it be by mistaking money for success, acquaintances for friends, sex for love, or enjoyment for fulfillment.

How, you ask, did I get from my search for the novel to the extinction of the human spirit at the hands of technology? It’s a straight line, really. Our actions and desires are always a response to our culture. If we lived in the poorest of countries, we would try to satisfy ourselves with only the best of grass huts and the fattest of calves. In the same way that we need darkness to know what light is, we have to be able to relate our happiness and satisfaction to something, and we find that standard by looking at other people and what makes them happy. This is ridiculous when we realize that they, themselves, are only watching someone else.

In this age of religious cynicism, it would sound trite to simply say that we need to look to God for our satisfaction, but I’m going to say it anyway. But it goes beyond simply looking to God. It’s in letting God show you how to find it. The answer might lie in stripping down our existence and asking ourselves what we really require to be satisfied and what satisfaction means to us, because it is not something that can be judged and measured by another person’s experience. Happiness is a very subjective emotion, and one that needs badly to be redefined.

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