I recently saw the award-winning movie “The Social Network.” Seeing it reminded me that a movie that wins awards is not necessarily one I will enjoy seeing. However, it did start me thinking about an aspect of contemporary life that strikes me hard every now and then.
Throughout the movie, I was struck by both auditory and visual clutter. There were so many sounds that I had to strain to hear the conversations that seemed to be central to the story. The same was true of following the characters visually. The screen was so busy that focusing was difficult.
It seems to me that life can be a lot like that. We multi-task — or try to do so — in order to accomplish more of the things that are on our lists. And we are surrounded by even more requests for our time and attention. But one line in the move seems to me to point out the inherent danger. A lawyer talking to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about several pending lawsuits wants to know whether he has Zuckerberg’s attention. “You have,” Zuckerberg tells him, “a small portion of my attention.”
Now, some of what was distracting the young man in the film were things we would call destructive or sinful. Sometimes that which seems to demand our attention is unworthy. Discerning and tossing out that clutter needs to be a first step in regaining an integrated focus for our lives
But really, a great deal of what we want to do and think about is good and worthwhile. Still, it seems to me that each good and worthwhile thing deserves more than a small portion of my attention. Thus, I struggle — with varying degrees of success — to choose the professional, leisure and social activities that will add up to a healthy lifestyle, allowing me to give the best of myself. St. Ambrose alone offers enough wonderful events that one might keep busy seven days a week, but I must choose among them. So many causes would be worth my time, energy and monetary donations, but those, too, are limited so my husband and I try to select a variety that reflects our values. Even in planning classes, I must make limited choices from among an abundance of great materials, class activities and assignments. (I am sure any student reading this will suggest that I cut down even more).
Christian tradition, I believe, supports the urge to set priorities and to focus our energies in an integrated fashion. In the Gospels, Jesus compares the reign of God to a pearl of great price for which one would immediately sell everything else, and tells his followers that they should seek that Kingdom first. Christian Spiritual Tradition offers us ways to clear our minds of their busyness so that we might focus on what God is calling us to. And that might mean choosing from among many good things, the ones that we will do.
Here we might draw on the idea of Christian vocation. That usually brings to mind lifestyle choices: marriage, single life, celibacy, community. And those are good examples. Each of those is a good choice and at least some of them are mutually exclusive, so we choose the one to which we are called and rejoice that others are called to give witness by living in other good ways. So, too, with all the good activities to which we might dedicate ourselves. We must generously choose those for which we have the resources, including time, talent, and energy; and cheer on those who are called to accomplish other things.
Is there idealism in my suggestion? Certainly, especially when I try to summarize it so briefly. A look at the news any day reminds of us how much is going undone in our world, how much need is out there. Still, just as it is hard to hear one person when many are talking (I sometimes need to remind even adult students), it is hard to accomplish anything well if I try to do too much. And I suggest that the Christian virtue of hope urges me to look for that which I am called to do and to trust that it is meaningful even if it seems a drop in so huge a bucket.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)