Attention and the Screen-Sick Soul

I remember the first time a gas pump gave me a sales pitch. I pulled off I-64 near Crozet, Virginia, on one of those torpid August days when the pavement puckers and snaps underfoot and the heat writhes in the air, the kind of day when mirage-like unreality already pervades a service station. I jumped when a chipper voice addressed me from over my shoulder. The gas pump screen, where I had just entered my zip code, now played an advertisement. What seemed a bizarre novelty then has now become a common occurrence. The pump at my local Shell station offers a fast-paced sequence of self-help advice, celebrity news, and product promotion. Some employee, saintly or rebellious or both, has labeled the mute button with a marker.

Matthew Crawford might say I witnessed—or suffered—the ongoing expansion of the attention economy on that hot August day. This economy treats our attention “as a resource—a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to innovative marketing ideas.”[1] Screens and ads continually encroach into new territory where we cannot easily avoid them. Crawford says that we are, in effect, living through the enclosure of the “attentional commons.”

Another instance: a screen bloomed above the urinal at a bar I recently visited in South Bend, Indiana. It alternated between vacation rental ads and drink specials. I never thought I would be nostalgic for hand-scrawled raunchy witticisms on the bathroom wall, for vulgar traces of what seems more fully human. A friend told me such urinal screens are now common in large airports. These real-world expansions of the attention economy are, of course, mere raids alongside the digital campaigns. The Internet has become a data harvester in service of the attention economy.

Such developments annoy and disconcert me, in no small part because I am easily hooked. Daydreamy and distractable, anxious and easily lost in thought, I have struggled since childhood to be fully in the moment. I have worked hard at becoming more present. Much of my reading and writing has, directly or indirectly, related to this task. But the expanding attention economy has led to new challenges and new setbacks.

My eyes drift to the screens that seem to hang in every restaurant corner. I find it hard to click the exit button as Netflix auto-plays the next episode. My fingers ache to check my phone, to click links generated by algorithms that continually construct a profile to net me more effectively. Too often I am less-than-present for my beloved and my children, for my friends and family, for the God I profess yet to whom I sometimes do not pray because I am distracted by a cooking game app. Bitter irony, I have found myself annoyed at my children for playing nearby while I am trying to listen to a podcast about being present. There are long stretches where I elude these attention traps, but I am one who suffers from what Crawford calls our chronic « crisis of attention. » I feel at times like I am fighting a rear-guard action in a losing war.

The war for our attention is also a war against it. Ours is a world of short clips and two-minute reads, of Twitter and TikTok, of attentional quick fixes. We swipe from image to image and click from link to link. We multiply browser tabs. Our attention is dispersed. It becomes more superficial and fleeting. This leads us to consume more “content” more quickly. Our attention is broken into smaller units of exchange that we more readily spend, like a coin cup at a casino.[2]

These dynamics often leave us alienated, distracted, and restless.[3] To understand why, we need to distinguish between attention in the bare sense, as whatever we happen to be pointing our eyes at in any given moment, with a more robust sense of attention as a capacity for sustained focus. The attention economy wages its war against the latter. Sustained attention comes in many forms, and it can be developed in a variety of ways. Crawford says sustained attention “is a habit built up through practice.”[4] Thomas Pfau likewise claims that it is “a habit of focused seeing.”[5] Many practices of attention are ancient, but the contemporary crisis makes them more necessary than ever. They allow for a fuller, more meaningful life.[6]

Practices of attention are not just self-therapy, however. They have ethical import. Justice and care require us to attend to others. They have social and political import as well. Byung-Chul Han claims that we psychologize what is, at least in part, a political problem when we treat skyrocketing diagnoses of ADD and ADHD among children (and increasingly adults too) as solely a matter of individual neurochemistry rather than as symptoms of societal ills, as consequences of an economy that commodifies attention.[7] Social media has had devastating effects on teen mental health. It has been widely noted that tech moguls flood homes and schools with screens but often send their own children to screenless academies. The crisis of attention deepens inequalities. It has class and generational dimensions. One way to empower people today, then, is to widely share practices of deep attention.[8]

Practices of attention also have spiritual import since inattention blocks experiences of transcendence. It numbs us to the divine. The storms of the attention economy can drown out the still, small voice of God. The Church is uniquely positioned within the attention crisis. Its situation is one of peril and possibility. It is imperiled because lack of attention impoverishes the spiritual sense and openness to God. The Church still has the opportunity to help many, though, because of its rich traditions of contemplation, prayer, and mysticism. “The cultural technique of deep attention,” Han explains, “emerged precisely out of ritual and religious practices . . . Every religious practice is an exercise in attention.”[9] It is time to recover the Church’s traditions and techniques of deep attention, to address them to the contemporary crisis.

Before turning to practices of attention, we first need a sense of what robust attention involves. Modern philosophy tends to focus on humans as creatures of will and action. It neglects how we are also receptive creatures. We are continually receptive through our external senses. We are also receptive in our souls—our psyches. These receptive planes intersect. A sound or smell or taste can suddenly flood us with unbidden memory, and we see and touch in our dreams. William Desmond says that we are “porous” creatures—complexly so.[10] Our porosity can become clogged, though. We become complacent in our routines, dulled by the daily grind, caught up in anxieties, worries, preoccupations, fantasies, and cares. We become distracted from the many overtures and aggressions of the attention economy. Resultantly, we become oblivious to much that goes on around us. Attention, then, requires a purification of our receptivity, an unclogging of our porosity.

That said, robust attention is not passive receptivity. Flat, undifferentiated receptivity is at the mercy of every stimulus from without and every thought or worry that bubbles up within. It flits from thing to thing without any focus and is easily manipulated. It is unable to determine what is needed in the moment. It is unable to sift the significant from the insignificant. In the attention economy, we are caught in a pincer between this kind of passive receptivity and clogged self-enclosure. They mutually reinforce each other.

Passive overload leads to restless distraction, in which we itch for more overstimulation. Robust attention, on the other hand, involves disciplined receptivity. It is unclogged of preoccupation and complacency, but it is also responsive, aware, and discerning. Desmond says it is a “state of high alert that paradoxically has nothing insistent about it.”[11] At times, the receptivity in robust attention is narrowed for a particular end, like the chess player’s hyper-focus on every change on the game board. At other times, the receptivity is alert but broad, like when we watch for wildlife by the side of a stream.

Han turns to a Zen teaching when addressing the dangers of flooded, passive receptivity. He claims that the attention crisis, with its sea of stimuli, often leads to burnout. What is needed is the “negative potency” of “not-to,” the capacity to not immediately and impulsively respond but to reflect, discern, and contemplate. Without this capacity for “not-to,” Han writes, “one’s senses would stand utterly at the mercy of rushing, intrusive stimuli and impulses.”[12]

The capacity for “not-to” is not a solipsistic withdrawal from the world and others. It is, among other things, the precondition of ethical care. Negative potency unclogs the vectors of moral action. Perhaps I am rushing out of the office at the end of a busy day of work, still thinking over an unfinished to-do list and late for my child’s afterschool pickup. My cell phone emits a series of dings to notify me of new messages. I walk by a co-worker with whom I am friendly but not particularly close. The co-worker’s face is creased with worry, haloed with pain. Without some degree of receptivity wider than my preoccupations, I will not notice this at all. And without some capacity for “not-to,” I will not set my own immediate concerns aside to attend to my co-worker.

Such situations, as mundane as they may be, show that we must discipline our attention for moral responsiveness. In Iris Murdoch’s formulation, “virtue” is “the reward of a sort of morally disciplined attention.”[13] Gabriel Marcel argues that we should cultivate disponibilité, a vigilant readiness to attend to the other.[14] This practice calls for situational judgment. Caring responsiveness, after all, can verge over into intrusiveness. I think of my Boy Scout days and the slogan “Do a Good Turn Daily,” a slogan that can encourage Murdoch’s “morally disciplined attention” and Marcel’s disponibilité, but which can also devolve into over-eager Scouts snatching grocery bags out of the carts of unsuspecting senior citizens. There is the danger of too much willful imposition and not enough alert receptivity. Disponibilité may call for giving the other space or not forcing a conversation. It may call for listening rather than talking.

Many of us are more liable to inattention than overzealous helpfulness. Marcel was a convert to Catholicism, and his ethics resonate with those of the Bible. The Bible exhorts you to be your brother’s keeper, to honor your parents, to love your neighbor and the Lord—to truly attend to those you encounter. Given the many YouTube videos of oblivious or indifferent bystanders in emergencies, it is easy to imagine a contemporary version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in which the bleeding man is not disdained or ignored but rather not noticed at all, perhaps because the passersby are busily swiping and tapping their cellphones. The parable would thus convict us for our habitual indisponibilité.

We not only fail to attend to suffering strangers. We often fail to be fully attentive to those we love most, to friends and family. These relationships easily sink into inattentive routines. At times they founder when the routine becomes a rut. Here Marcel commends a sort of long-term disponibilité that he calls “creative fidelity.”[15] He contrasts such fidelity with constancy. A relationship defined by constancy alone is a flat, static line. From one angle, this is no small thing—the line goes on; the relationship perseveres. But from another angle, this is unsettlingly close to the flat line on a hospital monitor. Constancy lacks vitality.

Creative fidelity, on the other hand, is dynamic. It is an attentive responsiveness that nourishes the relationship, that vivifies its repetitions rather than allowing them to slip into dull routines. Creative fidelity calls for care. It calls for attentive listening that truly hears, attentive seeing that truly sees. Creative fidelity, Marcel holds, discovers an ever-deepening richness in the other, in the never exactly identical repetitions of the shared relationship.

Practices of attention, then, can help us recognize the worth and mystery, the three-dimensional reality, of other humans. They can do the same for nonhuman nature as well. In the rural community where I grew up, the autumn deer season was a sort of religious rite. It was a major source of sustenance for my family, but there was something deeper at play. Part of it was the oral mythology of the hunt. Part of it was the rites of passage and generational continuity that deer season provided, as elders introduced adolescents to hunting, as extended family members congregated at the cabin or barn afterward. But part of the aura of the hunt, at least for me, was the contemplative solitude it cultivated.

Hunting involved long hours of sitting still in a blind or stand. As a boy with dreams of trophies and chase, this was a disappointment. The hunt bored me. I was restless and often bone-achingly cold. When I first entered the woods on opening day, an initial period of white-knuckled expectation soon gave way to restlessness. As I grew older, though, a contemplative attunement emerged. I attended to the textures of the woods, its sounds and smells, the qualities of its shades and silences. What initially seemed like “empty” woods filled with presence. Throughout my high school and college years, portable radios and ATVs became more prevalent, eroding the solitude of the hunt. Yet there are many alienating days when I hunger for that attentive solitude, for the presence that it disclosed. I seek it out in the woods near my home. When I visit my parents, I at times slip away to the old stand and sit in the silence, hunting for something without a gun.

Erazim Kohák, who spent seasons in an unelectrified New England cabin, claimed that moderns too often equate solitude with loneliness. The latter often involves a kind of habituated inattention, underpinned by a soulless metaphysics, that obscures the vital worth of nonhuman nature: “The pattern, finally, is all too familiar. Having taught ourselves to conceive of our world as dead matter in meaningless motion, we experience solitude not as communion but as isolation amid lifeless, alien surroundings.” We are left with existential loneliness. We are “monads” in an empty universe. Contemplative attention, however, offers another possibility. We can learn “to live with nature and others, not outshouting them with our insistent presence, but being instead ready to see and hear, in love and respect.”[16] Attention, then, allows us to recognize not only other humans but also other creatures and the landscape. It allows for wonder and gratitude. “To attend,” Pfau writes, “is to enter the realm of significant meaning.”[17]

The fine arts involve important practices of attention as well. As any number of philosophers and artists have noted, artworks call us out of our usual patterns of use and consumption. Art invites us to attend more deeply. This can be dramatic. Sometimes art does not so much invite as insist, like Rilke’s torso that demands conversion or the beauty of Florence that reduced Stendhal to fits. Often, it is far more mundane, the artwork’s invitation far more subtle. A large, inexpensive print of Monet’s Path in the Wheat at Pourville hangs on the wall opposite my couch. There are days when I am oblivious to it, but there are other mornings when, while drinking my morning coffee, it draws me into its ambiance. I attentively linger with its wheat and water and clouds to the point that they begin to move. I tend to feel more recollected and aware on these mornings. The attentiveness stays with me for at least a little while.

In the mid-twentieth century, Josef Pieper already worried that “the average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!”[18] Pieper recommends that one take up painting, poetry, or sculpture to develop “intensity of observation.”[19] The master of any art, fine or otherwise, sees more and sees in a more penetrating way. It is eye-opening to walk through a house with a carpenter, a pasture with a farmer, a meal with a chef, a gallery with an artist or art historian. They can help you see what is significant and singular. To walk through an old house with a master carpenter is to gain increased knowledge of it qua structure but also to gain insight into its possibilities as a home.

It is to have the history of the house, the palimpsest of problems and repairs and renovations, the scars of living that it carries, deciphered for you. It is to have intractable puzzles and mysteries pointed out. There is a different kind of “expert” seeing that disenchants. To walk through an old house with a contractor who is “all business” is to have a set of issues and amenities tabulated into a bill. There is too narrow a focus and not enough openness. There is not enough wonder and love and humility. Such expertise is a thinned-out version, perhaps even a counterfeit, of the master’s attention.

Like many, I drifted from the Christian faith of my youth in my late high school and college years. But I never fully lost touch with the transcendent. Given my continual struggles to be present, the times when I achieved deep attention took on a mystical quality. I would be riven in moments of tenderness and fellowship with friends and family, when watching the evening sun spill on a hayfield or the stars coming out in the night sky or a heron flying low in the early morning blue. I would be undone by a poem assigned for class (John Keats’s “Bright Star,” Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light,” the final section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) or when a friend took me to the Penn State art museum. These felt like—indeed were—religious experiences to me. I intuited the truth in Simone Weil’s claim that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”[20] Experiences like these would contribute to my return to faith and entry into the Catholic Church.

This did not solve all my attentional woes. I did not become an overnight mystic. The believer can recognize a particularly vicious loop in the attention crisis. Prayer brings inner peace, recollection, and self-awareness, renewed openness to God and others. It is potent medicine for our crisis.[21] Yet the capacity for prayer has been damaged by the crisis, the screen-filled spaces in which we live less hospitable to it. The poison has adulterated the antidote. We squeeze in a quick prayer and gain some spiritual calm, but it is often more of a band-aid or a pain reliever than a cure. Prayer needs to be scaffolded into a broader set of attentive practices, spiritual and otherwise; it needs to be part of a broader askesis.

By grace and persistence, this is still possible amidst our crisis. I realized this through Eucharistic adoration in the quiet of my parish church, while struggling through a bout of depression. The time in silent adoration taught me to still my mind. I learned the lesson that Søren Kierkegaard wanted to teach his chattering contemporaries: “He had supposed that to pray is to speak; he learnt that to pray is not merely to be silent but to hear. And so it is; to pray is not to hear oneself speak, but it is to be silent, and to remain silent, to wait, until the man who prays hears God.”[22] In adoration, I gained an attunement that allowed me to be a better husband, father, and friend. I gained an attunement that allowed me to pray better at home and during Mass. I gained—or more accurately, was graced with—a better attunement to God.

The vicious loops of the crisis of attention are best countered by the virtuous loop of the Church’s spiritual tradition, where the vita contemplativa energizes and directs the vita activa, so that prayer leads to works of mercy and charity. One way the Church can answer Pope Francis’s call to serve as a “field hospital” for the contemporary world is to help recover this virtuous cycle.[23] The Church can offer contemplative medicine to screen-sick souls. Parishes can offer more workshops and retreats on contemplation and prayer. Homilies can reflect more on prayer. Prayer can be woven more fully into religious education. Catholic media can focus more on spiritual practices. And all of this could be done in a way that explicitly addresses contemporary crises. There are important stirrings in these areas, but the need is desperate.[24]

Adoration, where I spent long periods kneeling in prayer, also reminded me that attention is not just a matter of the mind and the eyes. This is perhaps clearer in practices such as woodworking and cooking, dance and basketball, pilates and martial arts. They involve embodied knowledge and holistic attention. This is true of religion as well. Modern (Western) notions of religion, including too often Christianity’s own notion of itself, focus almost exclusively on propositions believed.

The role of embodied practices of attention tends to be neglected. “In olden times,” Romano Guardini observes, “people knew that outward bearing and behavior were not superficial things. They become superficial only when they have lost their inner meaning. Gesture reaches from the hand back to the heart. Outward bearing is rooted in inner attitude . . . Conversely it can itself affect the inner life, giving it stability and form.”[25] Without holistic attention, genuflection and the sign of the Cross, holy water and the rosary, adoring and even receiving the Eucharist, become empty routines.

With an attentive opening to grace, however, these same practices bring us into a new attunement to the divine. Faith best seeks, and finds, understanding within this attunement. The liturgy is meant to be the site where we give our loving attention to God, and where we are given the grace to lovingly attend to others. The highest form of attention is a gift of life and love. When given to God, we are returning a gift that he has already given us, one that he will return once more with lavish excess. The attention economy only takes.

[1] Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: FSG, ), 13. For Crawford, the breaking point that led him to write this book was when the credit card machine spat an ad at him while it was “processing” his card.

[2] The casino reveals the more dystopian possibilities of the attention economy. See Crawford, 89-112.

[3] Of course, the problems of distraction, anxiousness, and inattention are hardly new. Many philosophers hold, however, that they are more pronounced—even constitutive—of modernity. We might think of Pascal’s people terrified of being alone; Rousseau’s restlessly busy, scurrying bourgeois; Nietzsche’s blinking Last Men; or Thoreau’s “mass of men [that] lead lives of quiet desperation.”

[4] Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, 15.

[5] Thomas Pfau, “The Art and Ethics of Attention,” The Hedgehog Review 16, no. 2 (Summer ): 36.

[6] The psychology professor John Vervaeke has attracted a massive YouTube following by responding to the pervasive “meaning crisis” with practices of mindfulness, flow, and contemplation.

[7] See Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, translated by Erik Butler (Stanford, CA: Stanford Briefs, ), and Han, The Palliative Society: Pain Today, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2021). The Church Life Journal has played a significant role in introducing Han’s work to the English-speaking world. Robert Wyllie offers a contemplation-focused overview in “Byung-Chul Han and the Subversive Power of Contemplation,” Church Life Journal, July 9, 2018. Scott Beauchamp offers a sympathetic critique in “Byung-Chul Han’s Sinking Cargo Cult of Meaning,” Church Life Journal, November 5, 2019.

[8] Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019) both call for a politics of attention.

[9] Byung-Chul Han, The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020), 7-8.

[10] See William Desmond, The William Desmond Reader, edited by Christopher Ben Simpson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 195-227.

[13] Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Penguin, 1993), 23.

[14] See: Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity, translated by Robert Rosthal (New York: FSG, 1964), 38-57.

[15] See Marcel, Ibid., 147-74.

[16] Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago: Chicago, 1984), 40.

[17] Pfau, “The Art and Ethics of Attention,” 39.

[18] Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, translated by Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 32. Pieper recommended sensorial askesis, visual “fasting,” as one remedy. Today such “fasting” might involve putting away the phone each evening or turning off notifications. Digital “fasting” has become a regular Lenten practice for me and for many. What feels, at first, like a chafing limit becomes a liberation.

[20] Simone Weil, Simone Weil: An Anthology, edited by Siân Miles (New York: Grove, 1986), 212.

[21] The popularity of spiritual Eastern spiritual practices of meditation and yoga of course testify to this as well.

[22] Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, translated by Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1974), 323.

[24] Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, translated by Nicolas Diat (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, ), undoubtedly struck a chord with many because it ministers to the crisis of attention. See also Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild, A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, ).

[25] Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer, translated by Prince Leopold of Loewenstein-Wertheim (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1994), 31.