What is distraction for?…mind the gap!

Apparently it’s a modern epidemic, destroying our economic, physical, academic and spiritual potential. It pours out of our phones, Stan, Netfilx, Cable, Playstations, Xboxes, IPads, IPods, Radios, and Apple Watches. It comes at us 24 hours a day, ruining our lives and, (so I’m told) we’re powerless to defend ourselves.

Distraction. The latin root of the word is distrahere, to “draw in different directions”, “draw away”. But I wonder if distraction has less to do with being drawn away, and more to do with looking away. If distraction IS the big problem people say it is, perhaps we could, with profit, spend a little time looking into it. At the very least, you could read this instead of practising, doing your study, or those other jobs you say you want to do.

Free to do as we choose?

I’ll admit, that in addition to being its victim more frequently than I care to admit, I’m fascinated by the idea of self-distraction. When accidents or unexpected events distract us from our present course, that is a mind doing what it probably should be doing. But claiming a desire to progress, work, grow or attend to things we say are important, and then lose a day in mind numbing non-activities we’re not really enjoying, is another problem entirely. Like self-deception, it’s a strange example of how our mind can seemingly hold two incompatible positions simultaneously. To know and to not know the truth of a thing, to profess a desire to do something, and yet waste every opportunity to do it. A situation where we’re estranged from our own beliefs or intentions rarely (it seems to me) makes for fulfilled and contented lives.

Curiously, this goes to the very root of what seems to bedevil progress towards the things we (say we) want. So much so, that at the heart of the word Devil, is the Latin root ‘diabolical’. This word actually comes from the Greek diaballein, to ‘throw apart’. Not a big step from our earlier definition ‘To draw away’? To be distracted, then, is to fib to ourselves in such a way that what we are actually doing becomes ‘thrown apart’ from what we think we are doing, or what we would like to think we are. Sounds diabolical indeed. Looked at in this way, can we really blame IPods, beer, TV or Playstation? They make it all too easy sure, but the market for those things didn’t come from nowhere. We don’t blame knives for stabbing people anymore than we blame cars for distracted drivers; perhaps the responsibility lay closer to home.

Distraction, like addiction, is never sated.

Chronic distraction isn’t as new as the news would have us think. Recent articles blaming technology for the sudden epidemic of distraction ignore the reality that people who profess devotion to a calling, be it parenthood, karate, religion or study have found ways to blow off perfectly good opportunities to put their behaviour where their mouth is since ancient times. In a recent article, theologian Dr Mathew Tan discusses the many, varied and creative ways fourth century monks invented to distract themselves from their Holy mission of prayer and contemplation. Dr Tan goes on to suggest the reason we procrastinate, using any distraction we can get our hands on, has to do with a desire to assert our autonomy. He argues we are rejecting ‘God’s calling’ by passive-aggressively refusing to do what we should. This is where Dr Tan and I vary.

Thirsty fish does what he wants… but is he being the fish he wants to be? If not, where is his free will?

If I was going to be picky, I’d say it’s difficult to imagine how we could ever act in such a way as to be free of any outside influences. The idea is quite extreme when we unpack it. But to be fair, the context in which Dr Tan uses autonomy seems to refer to a desire to resist the influence of God as he understands Him (or Her). So for Dr Tan, if I understand him correctly (and Dr Tan, if you’re reading this, please feel free to correct me), is saying that it is God, and perhaps only God, who can provide us with the ability to resist the distraction of our baser impulses. Now I have a couple of problems with this. The first one, is actually related to my own research. In sum, my PhD examined the long held assumption that acting on impulse was to be less moral or to necessarily show poor judgement. The ancient Greeks actually had a term for this; Akrasia, meaning ‘lack of command’. My research found no reliable correlation, or causal relationship between moral and religious concepts, and impulsivity. Contrary to earlier and widely publicised studies (e.g. Rounding et al, 2012, in Nature), activation of religious ideas in experimental participants did not increase willpower or reduce impulsivity. Moreover, we demonstrated that the previous studies making such claims more likely detected a social desire to impress (by appearing more patient) rather than an increased ability to withstand an impulse.

The second, more critical, issue concerns Dr Tan’s idea that ‘autonomy’ (or free will if you like) can be conflated with giving in to our impulses, which lead to distraction and poor decisions. To the extent that we even have free will (which is a WHOLE other post) Dr Tan appears to suggest autonomy is chiefly being asserted when we’re acting against our best interests (i.e. numbing out to four hours of Netflix). I’m not sure that’s a defensible position. For starters, there’s considerable evidence our default impulses can be extremely pro-social, even to the extent of sacrificing one’s life for a stranger (pretty sure God would approve). Sadly, this idea wasn’t fashionable when I first suggested it during my tenure. My supervisor implored me to take it out of my PhD, lest I get caned for it. Three years later a big cognitive moral psychology lab in the United States came out with that very idea, which was greeted as a breakthrough in our understanding of moral psychology. To be fair though, I had an intuition as an aside to my studies, they’d got the actual data. Also, to my supervisor’s credit, he sent me a short email “Can you forgive me?”. I sent him this… But I digress.

Suffice to say our impulses can be righteous and moral, even godly. So I doubt very much that distraction is an assertion of a purely selfish, but autonomous self that needs an ephemeral parent to pull it into line. In my view, that’s not the problem with being at the mercy of our impulses, because it is tantamount to suggesting we ARE our impulses. The idea that true self expression and the freedom to be ‘ourselves’ (whatever that means) arises when we can do whatever we feel like doing is, I believe, a fundamental misinterpretation of the idea of what it is to be free. That’s my biggest problem with Dr Tan’s autonomy. I’d like to argue that there is much freedom in the ability to resist our impulses.

Psychologist Carl Rogers suggested that we live caught between two ‘selves’, our ‘actual self’ as described by our actions and habits, and an ‘ideal self’, the person we would like to be, an image of how we want to behave, feel and think (which I will refer to as ‘the Gap’). There is, obviously, always some distance between these two selves, a necessary tension between the two. Discussions about the actual and the ideal self usually focus on these, whether they match up reasonably closely or whether they’re poles apart. The gap was referred to as a discrepancy, as if it isn’t meant to be there. Like everyone doesn’t have that gap. But everyone does, whether they admit it or not. Not only should we not ignore that gap, just about everything that matters is there.

I believe our autonomy is closely bound up in the space between our ‘selves’. But, as Carl Rogers suggested, the gap entails a certain discomfort, it’s not always fun to know we’re not who we’d like to be. Or worse, have a moment of clarity and find what we’re not who we thought we were. So we often look away, distract ourselves. Out comes the alcohol, Netflix, Facebook and Instagram, losing time in our lives to avoid a little bit of discomfort that we might otherwise profit from.

Distraction isn’t an expression of autonomy, it’s a surrender of our autonomy. It makes us mindless consumer’s of whatever pap we’re spoon-fed by whoever will tell us they’ll do the thinking for us in the name of holy ‘convenience’. But perhaps there are more important things than what is easy; because when we’re done, we often want more out of life. Because what else is there but the space between what we’re doing and what we aspire to do? Where else could we do anything that matters? Being a little better at what I do than I was yesterday, requires seeing the space between what I am doing and what I hope to do as clearly as possible, not pretending it isn’t there. Because it always will be. Like the top of a mountain, it looks close, but the closer we get the further away we realise it is. That is as it should be.

There’s an awful lot of discussion these days about ‘finding’ our ‘authentic’ selves. To be brutally honest, after 20 years of formal study on the bridge between philosophy and physiology (called ‘psychology’), and many more years exploring and pondering human nature, I really don’t know what people mean when they say they want to go away and ‘find themselves’. I know what they think they mean, but it seems to me too often it boils down to just another way of saying they don’t want the responsibilities they signed up for along the way anymore and want to go and do whatever they feel like doing. Those that want to run away from everything to find themselves probably already have, and the news isn’t especially flattering…

There I am – caught between what I am and what I would like to be… all I can do is ‘mind the gap’.

Ernest Shackleton (the rather hapless Antarctic explorer) was once asked why people like him felt the need to do such difficult things, like return to a place that had already nearly killed him. He replied ‘because it is in our nature to explore’. I think that is true. Just about everyone I know well has, at one time or another, been attracted to a task, a role, a way of life that would test them, their resolve and their strength (emotional, spiritual physical or whatever). In every single case they’ve quickly found that they are likely to come up short. But I think it is the desire to find out about ourselves, explore our own natures that attracts us to challenges, big undertakings, great adventures. But at the end the adventure is mostly internal. To quote American essayist and conservationist John Muir;

‘I went to the mountains, and found that going out, was really going in’

I think the really big challenges make it pretty easy to see where we stand, what we are and what we aren’t. You’re fit enough to do a marathon, or you’re not. You passed the degree, or you didn’t. It’s hard to lie to yourself about the big unequivocal jobs, and that makes them attractive, instructive and often worth pursuing. They’re all well and good and I’ve had my share of great escapades, I’m very lucky to report. But at another level, that means they’re not as challenging as the everyday ‘gaps’ where no-one is looking. No-one will know if you’re not practising each morning, or studying, or changing a few words in that passage from a published paper and slipping it into your essay. But you will. Because most of the time you know what you need to do to be who you’d like to be. Who you tell people you are.

I love big challenges, but it is the little daily challenges that really tell me who I am.

My nephew is in his twenties, and as wise a young man as I’ll ever meet. He visited our home the other week, which is always a delight. On arriving, he asked if he could get a workout in before dinner as he’d been traveling for a day and needed the stretch out. So into the dojo he went, and we were chatting about training when conversation turned to training by ourselves. I’d written on my whiteboard in large letters ‘You know what you need to do’. My nephew later paraphrased that beautifully. ‘Yeah, you don’t want to go believing your own bullshit’.

But the little things we do each day, without looking to Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat for approval (yes, I see the irony here) are where we really find ourselves. When we get up and practise when we’d rather stay in bed, when we keep our cool when we have an impulse to do otherwise, when we pay what we owe even when we might get away with not doing it, we find we are a little more than we think. Of course, our expectations of ourselves moves too, ‘our ideal’ about ourselves grows as we do, and the summit of the mountain moves! You know that’s OK, that’s not a deficiency, that’s the rare gift of being human. The ability to cultivate ourselves. Not something you’ll see a lizard do.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned that I am not the gap between what I am and what I would like to be. That gap will always be there no matter how much progress I make personally, professionally, spiritually. It’s meant to be there. If we ever find ourselves anywhere, it won’t be in the Himalayas or even in the dojo, but in that gap. If you’re not prepared to look into that space, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a Zen monastery or the local pub.

Our ‘selves’ are, I think, to be found in two decisions. First, deciding to be honest with ourselves about the difference between what we think we’re doing and what we’re really doing. Perhaps going so far as seeking a trusted opinion, a mirror, or to quote my sage nephew, stop believing our own BS. Take this morning, here’s a rather embarrassing conversation I had with myself sometime before the birds started tuning up… trying to BS my self before I’d even put feet on the floor.

‘OK, get up’
‘Jeez, you didn’t get enough sleep last night’
‘Well, go to bed earlier tonight’
‘I could always practise after work tonight’
‘…and with the kids sport, dinner, homework, all those reports you need to write, and all the rest of it, how does that usually work out?’
‘Get up’…

Which voice was mine? Well, neither. But the conversation was mine (I find myself rather hard to live with some days!). So was the decision. Sometimes I’m happy about the decision I make later on. Sometimes, not so much.

We really find ourselves when we decide what we’ll do about that gap. But I think one of the difficulties we have is rejecting the gap, our shortcomings. American Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed that when we are faced with a glaring example of our behaviour not matching our ideas about who we aspire to be, we either change our behaviour or our attitudes. Either way we need to reduce the dissonance. Groucho Marx put it very simply…

‘When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading right away!’

So if the idea of not being who we would like to be is unbearable, we’ll tend to go for distraction, denial, anything BUT autonomy. Curiously, the key to change is accepting ourselves for the flawed creatures we are, and making a start where our heart leads us.

On the one hand we can tell ourselves we don’t really want to grow, or cultivate ourselves. It’s too hard, it’s not me, why not just (Netflix &) chill? OK fine, it’s your life. But because of human nature, I don’t really believe most of us are happy with that. I could be overly optimistic; but humans tend to aspire.

That gap is meant to be there. None of us are really who we’d like to be if we’re honest. We’re not bad, stupid or lazy because we’re not who we like to be. We’re frail, flawed humans who want to be better. Love yourself as you are, enough to make a start; making moves in the direction your heart tells you, you really want to go. Get up early, be a bit more patient, open that book, make that call, take a little step. Even though the ‘gap’ between our selves and our ideals is always meant to be there, it’s hard to deny the desire to make it a bit smaller.

Our autonomy lies in looking at that gap, and deciding whether to look away, or take the next step. And another.

See you on the road.

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