The Illusion of Multitasking and the Reality of Paying Attention

I have heard several seminar speakers recently emphasizing that churches are out of touch with the younger generations.  This has been a longstanding theme during the nearly 40 years I have been involved in ministry.  In order to illustrate this lack of relevance the example was given more than once about the ability of teenagers and young adults to multitask, doing their studies while listening to music, checking Facebook and Twitter and texting their friends.  The implication was that churches should do likewise.  I certainly agree with the advice that churches need to get up-to-date with their communications, keeping an attractive website and Facebook presence, but I have strong reservations about the multitasking idea.   Several research studies have confirmed that the human brain (unlike a computer) does not do well with multitasking.

The executive decision-making function of the frontal cortex assigns priority when confronted by several tasks and deals with them in order of priority.  It might appear that a person is doing several things at once, but in reality he or she is switching from one to another, and the transitions make the process more inefficient.  Also attention suffers in the process.  We have all suffered at the hands of drivers attempting to drive through busy traffic and talk (and even text) on their cell phones at the same time.  This constant stimulation of the brain by messages and images leads to a permanent state of distraction, an addiction to distraction, and an inability to concentrate and focus.  Witness the number of people who go to the theater or a cinema or out for dinner, who cannot give undivided attention to their companions, but keep texting and checking their cell phones.  Watch school children walking home after school and half of them are on their phones, ignoring their walking companions.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil

Simone Weil (French philosopher, 1909 – 1943) said that love is attention.  “Prayer is made of attention. It is the direction towards God of all the attention that the soul is capable of.”  She even said that the primary goal of education should be the training of the faculty of attention.  Attention consists in the suspending of thought, in leaving it available, empty and subject to penetration by the object.  It was, she believed, the person of receptivity and openness who would discover the truth. Deep truth had a way of eluding those who set out to grasp it by willpower.

The love of God is not the only thing whose substance is attention. “The love of your neighbor which we know to be the same love, is made of the same substance…  Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”  “The unhappy need nothing else in this world but those capable of paying attention to them. The capability to pay attention to the suffering is something very rare, very difficult; it’s almost a miracle.”  (Quotes are from Waiting For God by Simone Weil, 1951)

Her description of paying attention sounds very much like meditation, wherein one is letting go of thought and willfulness, and is open to the inner presence of the Holy Spirit.  As one gives attention to God in the silence, without any expectations, so in the active life one may also give attention to loved ones and neighbors without expectation of reward.  We desperately need more people in the family, the church, the neighborhood, the workplace who will give the gift of attention to one another.  To quote Jesus in Luke 10:42 they will have “chosen the better part”.

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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4 Responses to The Illusion of Multitasking and the Reality of Paying Attention

  1. juliahaslett says:

    Hi John,
    I very much enjoyed reading your post about attention and Simone Weil. I completely agree with your characterization of the modern epidemic of multitasking leading to a chronic state of distraction and inability to attend to one another and the world more generally. My recent documentary, An Encounter with Simone Weil, begins with one of the Weil quotes you cite: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” If you are interested in learning more, we have a website about the film (www.simoneweilmovie.com). In any case, thanks for your insight.
    Kind regards,
    Julia Haslett

    • John Fisk says:

      Julia, thank you for your remarks and for the link to your documentary website. I viewed the trailer and it hooked me, so I will keep an eye out for future screenings.

    • Cheryl Brooks says:

      Hi John –
      Loved this post! “Addiction to distraction” really hit home with me…I seem to see this more and more, particularly with younger co-workers and grandchildren. I saw Screwtape Letters on stage the other night, and was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ description of addiction as “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing return” – and that certainly seems to be the case with the addiction to distraction.
      And thank you so much for the introduction to Simone Weil – I must confess to an ignorance concerning her, which your post and Julia Haslett’s introduction to her documentary has urged me to remedy!
      Best,
      Cheryl Brooks

      • John Fisk says:

        Thanks, Cheryl. The world is surely going crazy, yet there are pockets of sanity. The Boston Globe has had two front page articles recently about meditation, one a couple of days ago about military cadets in training being taught how to meditate to alleviate the stress of military service. The other was about the beneficial changes to the brain brought about by meditation – increased attention and more compassion.

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