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When does news become a distraction?

  • 17 June 2024
  A week ago, I was on retreat. It was a mostly silent affair for eight days, something Jesuits do annually; a sort of tune up for the road ahead. ‘To check the oil and water levels,’ as one Jesuit I know is fond of saying.

It is an intentional time for prayer, and to really get into a liminal space, decluttering is important. The phone gets turned off, the auto reply email gets turned on and the days get pared right back. Initially, the key thing is to let myself slow down. After a while of letting go of distractions, I find myself delighting in small details. The crunch of my feet hitting a gravel path; the cold air striking my face as I go; the particular contours of the armchair I am praying in; the lingering smell of the morning’s coffee; noticing each mouthful of each meal in long, slow chews. Lingering over, and so relishing, simple things is both a means and an end to such set-aside time.

The sense of distraction shifts and reconfigures our experience. It becomes less about impediments to a destination and more about those things that stop me paying attention and noticing. These distractions in the day-to-day numb rather than suggest possibilities. The former are indulged, in a way, thoughtlessly and without reflection. They are consumed rather than engaged with. The latter might be thoughts or actions that don’t have an apparent purpose, they are without determined destination, but they are characterised by noticing, considering, reflecting.

Sometimes I hear about people fasting from the news, and I suppose I do that on my annual retreat. There’s a lot to miss in a week away. I have found myself ‘catching up’ in the last few days. As I have attempted this, I have noticed the fine line between my consumption of news as a numbing distraction, and an engagement with news that reminds me of human community, with its brokenness and possibilities.

I can scroll and scroll, beginning with the best of intentions to be informed and engaged by the world in which I share. But too often I find myself, if not despairing, then at least lost in the volume. I cannot, and do not want to, look away. But I know I need to engage with the news in ways that don’t overwhelm and distract with busyness, that leave me space to notice my foot fall