Michael Metzger

Memorial Day has become meaningless for most Americans. Admit it – it’s a stretch to remember those who have died in our nation’s service. We shouldn’t, however, be too hard on Americans. They’re the product of a system designed to make paying attention darned near impossible. Inattention poses one of the most significant challenges for making sense of our modern world today. The solution is simple – but it’s a stretch.

Memorial Day was inaugurated after the Civil War during a period of dazzling technology advancements, a “communications revolution,” writes historian Daniel Walker Howe.1 We were conquering “the first enemy,” distance.2 Samuel Morse had invented the telegraph in 1849. But by the 1870s, six hundred and fifty thousand miles of wire and thirty thousand miles of submarine cable had been laid. A message could be sent from London to Bombay and back in as little as four minutes.3 Speed was everything.

But Neil Postman said these technologies came at a considerable cost best summed up by Henry David Thoreau: “We are in a great haste to construct a telegraph from Maine to Texas. But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”4 Today, we’ve advanced from the telegraph to telephones to television to Twitter. Yet we’re being pumped with “information (at a very rapid rate) which answered no question we had asked… or leads to any meaningful action or reflection or analysis,” Postman noted.5 This breeds inattention. Right now, for example, some of you are drifting because this blog has already required more than a minute of your attention. Quite a stretch, huh?

That’s exactly what you ought to feel. Attention comes from the Latin words ad and tendere, meaning to “stretch toward,” implying effort and intention.6 It is “deep, sustained, perceptive attention” that forms “the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress,” writes Maggie Jackson in her book Distracted.7 Christians have long argued for paying attention, since it is necessary to see the ought-is-can-will code embedded in reality. This code isn’t a neon billboard in Times Square; rather it’s evident in the warp and woof of life – but people have to stretch to see it. When a civilization wearies of this exercise, notes Thomas Cahill, a confidence in an order or universal code is lost, and without such anchors, people begin to return to an era of shadows and fear.8

Attention is also critical to developing our conscience, researchers are discovering.9 In order to put back the stolen cookie, you must attend to your uneasy feelings, your actions, connect them to transcendent truths, and then make the right response. Interestingly, the code and conscience make up the Judeo-Christian equation for how people flourish. Yet it only produces flourishing with people who pay attention to it, or stretch toward it.

This is how our modern technologies undermine human flourishing. There is a natural human inclination toward the shiny and the bright – whatever’s eye-catching in our environment. It’s normal. In the Judeo-Christian definition of reality, friendship with God and cultivating creation were designed to be shiny and bright. We cultivated by communicating, which is by nature an interruption of attention. Interruption initially wasn’t a problem, since up until recent times, communication was conducted through technologies that were polite – waiting until you were ready to pay attention. The posted notes on the town square. The courier coming to your door. The letter in your box.

The last two centuries have changed all that. Consider television. On average, both children and adults look away from a TV up to one hundred and fifty times an hour. Television wins by continually interrupting your attention with the shiny and the bright. “Push and pull, back and forth, television is in essence an interruption machine, the most powerful attention slicer yet invented,” writes Maggie Jackson.10 Well, maybe. Text messaging and Twitter have to be right up there. The result, however, is indisputable. When the TV is on, children ages one to three exhibit the characteristics of attention-deficit syndrome. When adults continually twitter and text, they exhibit less ability to stretch and pay attention to important yet complex truths. In fact, many “no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture of reality,” writes literary critic Sven Birkerts. Now that’s a problem faith communities cannot ignore.

New technologies always promise to do something for us but never mention what they’ll undo wrote Neil Postman.11 I was reminded of what is being undone two weekends ago. I had just driven my mother from Florida to Michigan. At her summer home are stacks of family photo albums, dating back to the 1920s. You see picnics and parties and people sitting together in kitchens enjoying extended conversations – before the age of TV. They aren’t bolting to answer a text message. And there’s more eye contact. People knew how to convey a complex thought. In one picture, however, taken in 1960, the change begins. People are no longer facing one another. The TV is on. Conversation is coming to an end.

Teens describe text messaging and Twitter as more enjoyable than face-to-face visits or phone calls. “Personally, I like talking to a lot of people at a time,” a Pittsburgh-area teen told researchers. “It kind of keeps you busy. It’s kind of boring just talking to one person cause then like… you can’t talk to anyone else.”12 Bummer. Paying attention to one person or one holiday is a stretch that few Americans can make. It’s why Memorial Day has become meaningless for most. It’s also why the reality has become meaningless.

When people can no longer pay attention, they cannot see the patterns making sense of life. If they can’t pay attention long enough to see the ought-is-can-will rhythm embedded in reality, it’s unlikely the gospel of creation-fall-redemption-restoration is going to grab them. It’s a stretch. You’re probably pooped out right now for example, having just slogged your way through nine hundred and eighty-eight words. Relax, it’s a holiday! Pull out a family album and try stretching this way. Or if you’re really tuckered out, watch Barry Levinson’s Avalon and see why paying attention is darned near impossible today. Perhaps you’ll become part of the solution – but it’ll stretch you.

1 Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5.
2 This term originated with the French historian Fernand Braudel in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds (London, UK: Fontana, 1976), p. 355.
3 Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers (New York, NY: Walker Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 25, 102.
4 The Bigelow Papers,” Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell, ed. Marjorie Kaufman (Boston, MA: 1978), p. 18; Henry David Thoreau, Walden intro. Norman Holmes Pearson (New York, NY: 1964), p. 42.
5 Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1985), pp. 68-69.
6 Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 765.
7 Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (New York, NY, Prometheus, 2008), p. 13.
8 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York, NY: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 1995), p. 181.
9 As reported in Jackson, Distracted, pp. 23-24.
10 Jackson, Distracted, p. 72.
11 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, NY: Random House, 1993), p.5
12 Bonka Boneva et al., “Teenage Communication in the Instant Messaging Era,” in Computers, Phones, and the Internet: Domesticating Information Technology, ed. Robert Kraut, Malcolm Bryin, and Sara Kiesler (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 201-218.


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  1. Mike, great post! You’ve shown us the importance of paying attention in an ADHD society where the name of the game is speed and inattentive multi-tasking.

    Two thoughts though. You quote Maggie Jackson saying that it is, “deep, sustained, perceptive attention” that forms “the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.” Later you talk about communication as a disrupter of attention. I understand that communication can disrupt my attention from thinking deeply if that communication is vacuous, but I thought communication, at least the deep kind, was meant to help us pay attention through the eyes of someone else. As Jackson said, perceptive attention forms a building block for intimacy, and I would add, empathy. Thoughtful communication may interrupt my personal thoughts on creation, but it is this thoughtful communication that allows me to (a) stretch to see someone else’s point of view, (b) provides a check by which to examine and perhaps correct my understanding of reality. After all, this does appear to be the purpose of your blog, to dialogue with people in a meaningful way in order to draw their attention back to attention.

    Second, you wrote:

    When adults continually twitter and text, they exhibit less ability to stretch and pay attention to important yet complex truths. In fact, many “no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture of reality,” writes literary critic Sven Birkerts.

    What do you mean by the full picture of reality? Are you referring to the ought-is-can-will model, or are there other aspects that complete reality, that we are somehow missing out on?

    Thanks again for the post. It was a great good morning gift.

  2. Good thinking but a weak introduction. The writer must not have seen the Memorial Day concert on the Washington Mall. Anyone who saw it will know that the Spirit of Memorial Day is not meaningnless in our American Culture today.

    I for one will do my part to keep it meaningful by appreciating – and communicating my appreciation to others – the crucial role that those of our country who sacrificed their service and lives for the values that have made America (no matter how flawed she may be) the country so many who are not her sons seek.

  3. Mike,

    In several of your articles you make mention of the “ought-is-can-will code.” I’m a relative newbie to your blog so I have no idea what this is. Can you explain it a little for me please?

    Nice article on attention. I have a 13 year old son and just yesterday he expressed being bored waiting for a CD to be ripped onto iTunes! New technologies are setting expectations high for having things “now” and the virtue of patience is left by the wayside.

    One word on technology and communication. In Christian circles there seems to be a general negativity towards any new technologies and a rosey picture painted of the “good old days” before TV and the evils of video games and the Internet. And yet, there is the potential for a lot of good from these new communication tools, and particularly the Internet. I can e-mail the members of my small group through the week to give them encouragement. I can Skype my mum in England each weekend and stay in touch (a definite plus in terms of communication). As a church we had a two-week Facebook event guiding us all to pray through scriptures together. There are several excellent Bible search and study guides all online (the Bible Gateway being my favourite). And then there’s the Doggie Head Tilt blog! I won’t go on further, but it’s all just to say that today’s technology can facilitate communication and build links like we’ve never been able to before.

  4. The biggest impact on me in terms of appreciating the sacrifice that our service men and women have made and continue to make for our freedoms was to visit the battle fields of WWI in Europe and in particular the excellent museum in Ypres, belgium:

    The other huge impact on me was to visit the many cemetaries with row upon row of white headstones. I guess, here in the US, somewhere like Arlington would have the same profound impact. I need to take my 13 year old there and we can read the names and count the headstones of the thousands who’ve given their lives to enable us our freedom.

  5. Great post. I am struggling to teach my 16 daughter how to communicate to her friends and especially her boyfriend because they would rather text than have face-to-face communication! The good news is that she does love to read!

  6. Merrill:

    This ongoing discussion about the intelligence of farmers can be somewhat reframed and resolved when we consider that, if they went to church, colonial American farmers routinely heard two hour sermons and references to Dante and the like. Lincoln was raised a farmer and said he only had one formal year of schooling. Yet he mastered five classics, including Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare, and the Bible. We are Masters of Trivia today. Shakespeare used 39,000 different words in his works. It was believed that everyday people had close to the level of vocabulary – even farmers. BY the 1800s, the numbers begin to fall. Today, the average American uses @22-25,000 different words – teens use less than 20,000. It’s partly why you hear “just,” “like,” “uh,” and “really” so much – they’re intuitively searching for words that are not in their vocabulary. If you want to see this played out, rent Idiocracy. Hilarious, provocative, offensive, and chilling.

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