There are different kinds of distractions. There are distracted people who lose their keys, their glasses, their tickets for the parking lot, and anything else that passes through their hands at some point during the day. Then there are those distracted people who forget about meetings, arrive at their appointment the day before or the day after, who discover that everyone is waiting for them … It’s annoying! But let’s not judge our distracted child, friend, or spouse too harshly.
Distractions due to superficiality
The great Blaise Pascal is critical of this incapacity to inhabit the depths of one’s own soul, which perpetually leads us outside of ourselves. “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber,” he writes in the Pensées (n. 139). We invent distractions to avoid thinking deeply and facing the world of the soul.
Thus, the distractions that we deplore in ourselves or that annoy us in others are due to some extent to living superficially. What we hear with one ear goes out the other. Nothing remains engraved in us, nothing touches our memory or takes root in our heart. Every new subject of interest chases away the previous one without ever arousing real attention. When that is the cause of our distraction, then we should accept Pascal’s criticism which invites us to recognize that if our distraction is harmful, it’s because of this superficiality that it manifests.
Distractions due to rich inner life
However, Plato tells a famous anecdote about the scholar Thales. Immersed in his deep thoughts and his contemplation of the stars, he forgot to look where he was going and found himself at the bottom of a well (Theaetetus, 172c-177b). Our distractions are not all due to superficiality: they can be the revealer of a rich and present inner life that often competes with daily life.
Our forgetfulness, our clumsiness, and our blunders then express the tension that exists in each of us between the call of inner life and the pressing necessities of the present moment. Absent-minded people can also be precious friends who go over and over everything in their hearts.
Give our inner life its place
This is why we shouldn’t combat our propensity to lose our keys or forget the code to open our building’s door simply with to-do lists. We can work to overcome it by respecting our interior life, giving it plenty of room, and knowing how to “stay quietly in our own chamber.” We become less distracted by creating a passage between the surface of our life and its depths.
And when we pray, if our persistent and distracting thoughts return — if the Sunday menu or our Monday meeting agenda comes between us and the mysteries of the Rosary — let us take advantage of this to also grant those thoughts a right of citizenship. God loves, knows, and seeks to be present to all that we are. Our household or financial concerns are not indifferent to him. He had a mother who also had meals to prepare!
Let’s accept that he also comes to inhabit our concerns. Let’s not chase them away as distractions. Rather, let’s take the opportunity to present them sincerely to God. Thus, they will probably stop resurfacing in the form of distractions that get in the way of daily life. All those who help us look for our keys will thank us in passing!