Thursday, November 21, 2013

In Defense of Distraction

I'm writing this in class. For a while I was paying attention to the professor, but my attention wandered and I suddenly had an idea for a blog post. Your forehead is probably crinkling in scorn. That's because you live by our society's monkish rule: thou shalt not lose focus.

I remember a conversation I had in 1999, when I was a first grader wearing purple sweatpants and chewing on the front of my shirt. I was squirmingly sitting one morning on the classroom rug when a girl came up to me. (That's a poetic invention: I actually don't remember whether she approached me or was already sitting next to me.) "I don't get it," she said. "How come you know so much stuff? You never pay attention in class." I was plunged into embarrassed silence for the next fourteen years.

From which I now emerge, because I've finally thought of an answer. Though, anonymous seven-year-old, you've spent more hours than me in quiet focus; though you've managed to hook your mind up to countless heavy plows, I've had more fun than you, and I'm none the worse for it.

I was born incapable of concentrating. It's the most obvious in class, in which only the rare teacher has been able to hold my attention for ten consecutive minutes. (At least, it used to be obvious—over twenty years, still embarrassed by that first-grade girl, I've perfected the art of pretending to be engaged while holding a private seminar in my head.) But it pervades my life: I can barely muster the mental strength to read a newspaper article to the end, and I can't go running unless I have an iPod or a friend to keep me interested. I once resolved to stay in Chicago for four years, and ended up joining a Latin-speaking colony in Rome.

On the other hand, a used bookstore will keep me
 rooted in place until I'm physically dragged out.

It's not that I find the world uninteresting: it's actually the opposite problem. The world is interesting, but it has a bad habit of offering lots of interesting things all at the same time. So I'm like the philosopher-donkey who, equidistant from two pails of water, couldn't decide between them and died of thirst. That's actually a bad analogy: I'm more like the philosopher-human who set off for the South Pole because he couldn't sit still in London drawing rooms any more, and then changed course in the Atlantic because he wanted to see the Amazon first.

It is, of course, annoying that I'm incapable of writing a paper efficiently. I also wish I could read a novel without forgetting to pay attention, or look up a word in a dictionary without reading every entry on the page. Or watch a play without lapsing into elaborate daydreams in the first act. 

But my tendency to wander also has advantages. Imagination is the biggest: I never, for example, have to sit bored in a white-walled synagogue, because in my mind’s eye I can always wander under the Southern Lights in Antarctica, tread the winding paths of Greek grammar, visit my grandparents in Connecticut, play Don Giovanni in my head with a full orchestra, or count off the sixteen counties of Maine from the top of Mount Katahdin.

It pays in even more ways to be distracted. Take conversations, for instance. There's nothing like a partner who's willing to abandon all decorum and run down every conversational side-road in sight. A friend and I once mapped out a conversation we had while wandering around Hyde Park for five hours. The result was a path that wound through modesty laws, math, and wonder at the universe, passing through countless spheres of human and unhuman existence. 

Now, before you lose interest, I want to urge you to agree with something: a lack of mental discipline is not a moral flaw. Insofar as it's a flaw at all, it's a practical flaw. Which is to say, there are a lot of parts of life that would be easier with a little more Sitzfleisch. It's sometimes useful to keep yourself from distraction when doing important things, like classwork and driving. But that's no reason to think that a soul is inherently better if it can do algebra and chop wood without stopping. It's better at precisely this: algebra and woodchopping. And if the world is just, we will never be held accountable for either one of those things. 

Consider this part of my dislike for virtue; that is, the rules that bind us to anything but being decent to each other. Written on the door of the computer lab I'm typing this up in is a frightening quote from Seneca: "Disgusting is the waste of time that happens by negligence." To that, I say: I think I'll look up the Martian moons on Wikipedia.