We live in a world of distractions. Day and night, our phones light up with texts, emails, social media updates — all demanding our immediate attention as we strive to remain plugged in.
But God doesn’t often come to us through a text or a Facebook post. When we’re in constant contact with the rest of the world, our spiritual life suffers. In “A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction,” (Sophia Institute Press, $15), Dr. Joshua Hochschild talks about disconnecting with the outside world and reconnecting with God.
Kris McGregor: Boy, is this book needed! What compelled you to put this together?
Dr. Joshua Hochschild: My co-author Christopher Blum and I are teachers and parents, living through the digital revolution, noticing how our habits are changing, and patterns of behavior in society are changing. The digital revolution is a grand social experiment, the results of which we don’t know yet. There’s plenty of research diagnosing problems from other perspectives, but we wanted to give people resources they could use to meet today’s challenges.
McGregor: You make a journey from our minds into the heart, where peace is ultimately found.
Hochschild: The human person is a unified being, and we can’t isolate our minds and come up with rules for how to think, while ignoring how we cultivate our memory and our relationships, and how we tune our affections for things that we care about.
We’re trying to help people recover interior peace. We haven’t discovered something new. We’re reiterating wisdom from saints past, who have insight into what it’s like to have a well-ordered soul.
McGregor: I think of St. Benedict, whose rule is to listen with the ear of your heart to find balance.
Hochschild: So much of St. Benedict’s rule seems mundane — how to eat, have conversations, how and when to sleep, how to hold yourself when you pray. It’s incredible how much he pays attention to the everyday, physical disposition of our bodies.
That’s part of what it takes to find interior peace. We can’t ignore that we’ve been made as physical beings. God wants us to glorify him not just in our minds, but with our whole lives.
McGregor: Let’s state the problem: distraction. As St. Ignatius of Loyola would say, you have to be very careful because the enemy is going to distract you from all sides.
When he was alive, the biggest distraction was maybe a book, or a conversation. Can you imagine an Ignatius of Loyola steeped in the culture we have today?
Hochschild: To get perspective on how hard it is to avoid distraction for us today, think of an even earlier spiritual writer, Evagrius. He was helping monks learn the discipline of rigorous prayer life.
He was concerned that, while you’re reading Scripture, you might get distracted and read another part of Scripture. Or, if you got tired of praying, you might go and visit a neighbor, and have a conversation with him.
Wouldn’t it be great if we found ourselves distracted by reading things other than what was assigned, or visiting a neighbor and having a conversation?
Instead, we have the smartphone, which is virtually unlimited in its ability to lead us to things that we don’t need and aren’t good for us, but that give us immediate satisfaction.
We’re old enough to remember life without that, but my some of students in college had smartphones in middle school. They never experienced life without it.
McGregor: If I’m honest, I’ve find that in myself. I’ve been in rooms with all kinds of people that I could easily talk to, and they are texting in their middle of our conversations, or waiting for a message. It happens all the time.
Hochschild: One of the things that we experienced, is that we don’t always live up to our own standards. I take that as a sign of hope. Maybe we can’t always resist the temptation to check our phones, but we know that’s less than idea. The anxiety we have about that is healthy. We want to listen to it, so that we can reorder our lives.
I read a copy to a class of students, and the extent to which they were aware of these challenges and wanted to do something about it gave me a lot of hope. They’re not perfect, they admit that, and yet they weren’t terribly defensive about their behavior. They recognized that they’re missing out on friendships, and they felt challenged in their ability to pray. They longed for advice, support, encouragement, to reorganize their lives.
McGregor: It’s unfair to put this all on the smartphone. These kids learned by watching their parents, who were hooked on 24/7 cable television. It’s imperative for us to be aware of how we got to this particular point.
Hochschild: Every age has its own digital challenges. If you look back, people were worried that the advent of the printing press would cause too much distraction, and give people access to things they don’t need. Everything’s relative.
But I think there’s a difference today, with the internet and our ability to instantly access an unlimited range of stimuli. Our brains weren’t intended for that environment, but now we’ve created one where anything, all the time, can demand our attention.
We have to work harder to cultivate basic virtues of self-control, of consciousness of ordering our actions toward the common good. We have to be more intentional about forming relationships because they don’t happen naturally anymore. We have to work harder to cultivate the classic virtues that lead to peace of mind.
McGregor: You’ve taken ancient teachings and given them a modern vernacular, which makes it easier to digest. You’re giving us a model of holiness, how you can become whole, in a practical way.
Hochschild: We want it to be practical, and rooted in timeless truths and common sense.
Exercising self-control, taking care of our health, being attentive to the ways in which we sense the world and cultivate our memories — these aren’t truths that Catholics have a monopoly on. Anybody could benefit from reminders of what it means for a human being to be well-integrated, to be whole, and obviously, in the Christian perspective, that includes order towards God. We can think of wholeness as holiness.
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