Augustine and a Distracted Heart

I sighed deeply as I locked my phone and slid it into my pocket. I had just lost another half hour to the Twitter void. This familiar defeat to the black glass pane colored my morning reading as I pulled out Augustine’s Confessions. With this mindset, I discovered an ancient passage to be acutely pertinent to my ostensibly modern problem:

“I do not now go to the circus to see a dog chasing a hare, but should such a sight present itself to my eyes when I chance to be passing by a field, it may well divert me from some important thought to concentrate on that chase and cause me to turn aside not with the body of my mount but rather with the inclinations of my heart. And unless You be pleased on these occasions, after having shown me my weakness, quickly remind me by this sight either to aspire by some pious consideration toward You or to despise it and pass on, I stand fixed in this vain stupidity.” Book 10, Chapter 35

Never have I related so well to Augustine than as he bemoaned his unwitting capitulation to “vain stupidity.” Certainly, my smartphone and its accompanying array of apps can be a tool of inestimable value. The internet contains volumes of truth and connects us in ways previously unimaginable. Nevertheless, I would be challenged to find an experience more analogous to my usual Twitter session than “watching a dog chasing a hare.”

Augustine’s musings remind me of a recent newsletter by Matthew Lee Anderson, in which he encouraged his readers to consider abandoning Netflix. His reasoning: “My decision was made out of desperation to avoid becoming an empty soul, a hollow-chested person who might reach the end of my life having given a full year of it over to television—and in doing so join myself to the barrenness of the society in which we live.” I quit social media for about a year for the same reason. Admittedly, I intend never to return to the same diet I consumed prior to that year. I returned to Twitter, though, in part because I discovered that I am just as content to be distracted by other websites.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that a distracted heart can be solved by removing Twitter, Netflix, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or any other platform. My right-hand causes me to sin, so I take it to the butcher block, only to find my left is causing me a bundle of problems itself! Ultimately, we may strip our lives down to nothing but the dogs and hares and find that we are still consumed with “vain stupidity.” Of course, removing mediums of distraction can be helpful when practiced with prudence, as removing Netflix appears to have been for Matthew. Nonetheless, the algorithms are a formidable opponent, but it is still our own fingers that tap along to the song they play. As great a problem as our mediums of distraction may be, our greatest problem is our own willingness to be distracted.

Sadly, I must inform you that I am short on answers. If the Holy Spirit ever fully conquers my distracted heart, I promise to return with a more complete methodology. For now, I will leave you as I began and defer to Augustine again:

“Of such things my life is full, and my one great hope is in Your exceedingly great mercy. For when our heart becomes the receptacle of such things and is overcharged with the distractions of this abundant vanity, then our prayers also are often interrupted and disturbed, and while in Your presence we direct the voice of our hearts to Your ears, this important process is broken off by the inrush of idle thoughts, the source of which I am unaware.”

Indeed Augustine. May we all appeal to God’s exceedingly great mercy together.