If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.
Version of the widespread anecdote from Daniel Quinn’s “The Story of B”
I have always been fond of my times of quiet contemplation and deep conversation with those dearest to me, the times where I can just be present and allow my mind to center on those things which which enrich my life and the lives of those around me. During such times my heart comes fully to rest. My mind is allowed to collect itself, to purge itself of the extraneous and inessential details which cloud the connection between it and my heart.
These times are real. They remind us of our humanity. They bring us closer to the world we center in meaningful, substantial ways. In this sense, attention and focus are sacred.
I would be the first to admit, however, that it is not easy to make the space necessary to “be” in this way in the world we live in today. We have, slowly but surely over the space of a few decades, moved out of a world where such moments were not only possible, but common and into a world where our attention is analyzed and commoditized to the point that the unthinking person does not stand a chance in the war for his or her attention.
When I am out and about and look around me, there is hardly a person – alone or in a group – who is not constantly looking down at some electronic device which connects him to a virtual world that would gladly devour the better part of his day while giving him little to nothing in return. Whether we are drawn in by a voracious appetite for information or an unacknowledged fear of missing out matters little, because in either case our attention is gradually funneled into less and less meaningful obsession (e.g. to the point that checking messages becomes reflexive and unconscious, even during conversation with others), and our relationships, mental and physical health suffer as a result.
The sad thing is that we don’t notice it happening. Like the frog in the pot being heated slowly, we unresistingly let this happen. What’s worse is that we not only let it happen, but we in many cases are the unwitting authors of our own distraction! It is easy to end up being producers as much as we are consumers of digital distraction – mechanically posting the lasted random thought (rarely original), juicy find (rarely true), or video clip (rarely gainful) – and as our online presence grows, we are amazed one day to discover that we have no time for quiet contemplation, for undistracted conversation and for deep connection with the things that truly matter.
I have no delusions that this is the first or will be the last assault on our attention, wellbeing and fulfillment. Neither am I against the use of technology. In fact, I believe that rightly used, such tools offer the convenience of connection in ways that have never before been possible. My hope is that we will find it in ourselves to be mindful of the investment we make using them so that we don’t lose one another in the process, so that our humanity is not burdened but enriched.