Spend any time online these days, and you’re sure to find stories on the dangers of social media, texting and driving, and becoming too absorbed in the virtual world.
When it comes to driving, it’s pretty obvious to almost everyone that there are real consequences. What gets our attention less often, however, is the simple truth that being distracted, in and of itself, can be a danger. Not necessarily a physical one, but a spiritual one.
We spend so much time glued to our phones, our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like, that we risk missing the real world around us. If our minds are always “somewhere else,” then we are not truly focusing on our present reality.
My favorite example of this is a story that came out in February. It involves photographer Eric Smith and a set of photos he took near Redondo Beach, Calif.
Smith was looking to snap pictures of humpback whales in migration. He was lucky enough to stumble on a mother and her calf, surfacing and submerging rhythmically, just off shore. Using his long, telephoto lens, he started capturing a whole series of photos.
But when he examined the pictures in detail, one series jumped out at him. In the foreground is the clearly visible back of the whale, sliding in and out of the water. But just behind —perhaps only a few feet away — is a sailing boat. And clearly visible on the deck is a man. The man is sitting down, crouched slightly forward, elbows on his knees, and … totally and completely engrossed with his mobile device.
So busy is he, staring at a 4-inch screen, that he completely misses the beauty of the 40-foot whale right in front of him.
Smith posted several shots of this moment, and it’s clear this wasn’t an isolated frame. The man most definitely missed the entire event. Before, during and after, he is so distracted by his phone that he fails to notice a moment of beauty that few people ever get the chance to experience.
To me, this story is a metaphor for all of us. We are often so mesmerized by the minutiae of our lives that we fail to see the true beauty all around us. Our heads are down. We’re busy. We have deadlines. We have goals.
And, certainly, these things are important. But far too often, we’re either thinking ahead to our “next thing,” or worried about events long passed. Either way, we’re not “present” in the present.
Lest we think this a new phenomenon, the writer of the Gospel of Luke told a similar tale. Jesus is visiting sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, taking in the words Jesus has to say to her. Meanwhile, her Type-A sister, Martha, frets over the details of dinner-party hosting. Are the napkins straight? Is everyone’s glass filled?
Eventually, she can’t stand it anymore, and asks Jesus to intervene, and get her lazy sister to come help her. To her shock, no doubt, Jesus sides with Mary. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” (Luke 10:41)
This tells us that no matter the current context, distraction is not just a modern phenomenon. Even in Jesus’ day, it was far too easy to fret away over details, and miss the beauty around you. We don’t just miss it in nature. We miss it in the people around us, too. We’ve got to find ways to slow down enough to truly enjoy our loved ones and friends.
Milton Brasher Cunningham is a chef and ordained minister. Every week, in his hometown of Durham, N.C., he and his wife host a meal and invite friends to eat. He says that as a chef, people often ask him what he likes to cook. His answer is always the same, “I like to cook whatever will make you stay at the table and talk.”
That’s someone who understands the purpose of a good meal. The meal is not meant to be fretted over. It’s a vehicle to foster a time of fellowship and sharing.
Don’t be so distracted in every present moment that you miss the beauty of the moment itself. Details and plans are important, to be sure. But so is enjoying nature or the peace of an evening with friends. Be present in your present, and you will find that God will be there with you, too.