How to switch off and really listen

Our culture contains many false narratives that we unconsciously absorb and allow to shape our identity. We think “I am only of value, important and visible when:

  • I’m healthy and productive
  • I’m young and attractive
  • I work hard and remain busy
  • I possess many things
  • I succeed in life
  • I hold the attention of others.”

There are so many of these damaging stories in our world and minds.

When sometimes we go through seasons of serious sickness, ageing, unemployment, poverty, brokenness, invisibility or failure, it looks like everything is falling apart.

Sometimes God needs to do a deep work in us. We may feel as though he has left us when, actually, he is closer than ever.

One of the false narratives in our culture is that we need to be switched on all of the time.

We feel that we must know what the current hot topics are and stay on top of the latest information. This leaves us feeling distracted, restless and unsatisfied most the time. And this is making us unwell.

In her recent popular and well-written book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell describes feeling increasingly suffocated by the technologies that have created an atmosphere where her sense of identity and reality have been challenged. This is something I can relate to.

More and more I find that, in order to be “someone”, I need to be switched on to some kind of device or be engaged in online conversations or be up-to-date with the latest hot topics.

I think it’s something many people are feeling today and this could be why Odell’s book has become so widely read.

Yet we also have a strong suspicion that something is wrong and that we were not made to live this way. Odell writes: “And yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought lingers. Though it can be hard to grasp before it disappears behind the screen of distraction, this feeling is in fact urgent.”

We think that if we are switched on and engaged with the fast-moving world around us, if we just keep up, we will feel in control, satisfied and content. But it seems to me that it only makes us less happy, more restless, more distracted and struggling to pay attention to the whispers of God’s Spirit.

I wonder if we as Christians are too in love with our platforms, are too addicted to the ease of communication.

Are we losing the ability to pay attention and listen to God because we are absorbing the false narrative of our times that tells us we must be relevant, engaged and dynamic, and have a platform to be anyone important?

Do we need to hear the message to be still, focus and pay attention to the grounded and mundane stuff of life in the midst of busily branding ourselves, creating platforms and marketing our lives?

More than ever, Christians need to be deeply suspicious of the false cultural narratives that can function as idols in our lives.

I find it interesting that this kind of prophetic critique is emerging more from outside the Christian community. I wonder if we as Christians are too in love with our platforms, are too addicted to the ease of communication that is now possible and have not sufficiently challenged and critiqued the zeitgeist of our times.

What is the solution? We need to reflect on our lives and ask if we have been seduced by this false narrative that feeds our addiction to being in control of our world.

Christian teaching tells us to avoid what is doing us damage and, alternatively, engage in the “good”. Our Christian faith compels us to repent of the things that are dehumanising us and to reorient towards the values of the reign of God and Shalom. In a world that idolises the perennial “yes”, maybe it’s time to say “no” more often and resist the pressures of the “attention economy”.

Our value and identity are not, as our society says, attached to our attractiveness, visibility, youth, vitality, productivity, health, importance, relevance or wealth.

As Christians, we practise an incarnational or embodied spirituality rather than an “other-worldly” or disembodied spirituality.

Our faith must be put into practice and fleshed out in the local spaces where we live. So if the attention economy tries to split our focus, bring distraction and keep us busy with algorithms designed personally for our consumption, we are to stand apart from this. Instead, we should become humans again, engaging in our world by paying attention and focusing.

We do this through face-to-face conversations rather than simply online interaction, we pay attention to the ordinary things of life. We ground ourselves in our neighbourhoods to get to know those who think differently to us. We become so curiously drawn to the Creator that we simply lose interest in keeping up with the always changing hot topics of the day. Instead, we will engage with what is going on the real lives of those people we know and interact with everyday: our friends, family, neighbours and the “least of these” living in our community.

As Odell writes: I find that I’m looking at my phone less these days. It’s not because I went to an expensive digital detox retreat, or because I deleted any apps from my phone, or anything like that. I stopped looking at my phone because I was looking at something else, something so absorbing that I couldn’t turn away. That’s the other thing that happens when you fall in love. Friends complain that you’re not present or that you have your head in the clouds; companies dealing in the attention economy might say the same thing about me, with my head lost in the trees, the birds, even the weeds growing in the sidewalk.

It is when we counter-culturally resist the distractions of our society that we can subvert the false narratives which we have allowed to shape us. We can challenge the lies we and our culture have believed. We can grow out of old stories that damage us and our world and, instead, live out narratives that truly make us flourish. This is when we have space to engage in the good.

As we resist society’s call to remain permanently distracted and engaged in the trivial, we can then see that our value and identity are not, as our society says, attached to our attractiveness, visibility, youth, vitality, productivity, health, importance, relevance or wealth.

Our worth stems from knowing we are intimately and deeply loved.

Once we take hold of this, it is then that we can begin to participate with God in his work of changing those damaging stories and restoring our world.

Karina Kreminski
Inner city dweller. Explorer. Writer. Leaf blower hater. Flâneuse. Neighbourhood enthusiast. Lover of all things urban. Tea snob. Shalom builder.

Rev. Dr Karina Kreminski has worked in the fields of English teaching and journalism, and has also been a Senior Minister in the Church. She has a doctorate in missional formation. She currently teaches at Morling College in Sydney and also writes and blogs about spirituality, mission and theology.

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