A Work of Watchfulness

In the beginning, God created light, and of all inanimate things, it remains the one most fascinating to us. It is by light that we see; the colors of the things that we see are borne to our eyes on beams of light that differ in wavelength and intensity. It is true that there are some creatures with much better eyesight than ours, and it is also true that we exceed the other creatures chiefly in the use of our hands, the tool of tools, by which we shape and form and bring to perfection all that we need for life. Nevertheless, we human beings are sight-dominant creatures. Just as dogs are led by their noses, so we are led by our eyes, sometimes to dreamy reverie, as we gaze at a lovely sunset or dawn, and sometimes to quick and alarmed reaction, as when our reflexes save us from impending disaster while driving.

It is our sight-dominance that makes the digital age at once so promising and so logical a development of human culture, and also so dangerous. We are apt to be drawn to the light of a screen, whether it be a television or a smartphone, and captivated by its colors. More dangerously—and perhaps diabolically—we are apt to be drawn into different worlds altogether, virtual worlds created by and in light. If we are to navigate this digital era, we must learn how to discern true from false seeing.

We come to the crossroads of our subject: the habit of using our sense of sight. We must now consider directly the most iconic artifact of the digital age: the smartphone. Portable, interactive, and infinite in its possibilities, the smartphone is said to have abolished boredom. Yet we must think about what a claim such as this might mean. It does not mean that the smartphone has given us a deep, meaningful sense of purpose and peace. It does not mean that the smartphone gives us mindfulness, meditation, or contemplation. It does not mean that the smartphone provides focus, insight, patience, and joy. It does not mean that the smartphone makes us watchful. Would Jesus have been pleased with the disciples if, instead of finding them asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, he found them gazing into flickering screens? We can say that the smartphone has abolished boredom only in the sense that it gives a constant stream of stimulation. The smartphone is a distraction device.

This article is from “A Mind at Peace.” Click image to preview/order

It is also an addiction device. Empirical data in support of that conclusion are coming in fast and furious. Some of the data are just what we would expect: students performing poorly in their academic pursuits; youth spending more time on their smartphones each day than in any other activity—and sometimes more than all other activities put together; a chronic tendency of those surveyed to underreport their actual usage of the devices; and, for the leading brand, a 99% renewal rate, a level of commercial success hitherto unheard of and perhaps even undreamt of. Other signs are more alarming: drastic disturbances of sleep habits; the menace of internet bullying and stalking; an increase in clinical anxiety; the scourge of pornography; a spate of suicides associated with the use of social media. Yet the studies and trends only confirm what we all know and feel to be true. Some two-thirds of adult Americans now use smartphones; we all possess sufficient anecdotal experience to persuade us that what the headlines suggest ought to be taken seriously.

The morbid subject of smartphone addiction must be squarely confronted, lest we mistakenly persuade ourselves that it is a passing phase. Quite the contrary: smartphone addiction is the coming to fruition of well over fifty years of deepening addiction to the lights and colors of screens. Given our physiology, it is a development that makes sense. And for some, it makes lots and lots of dollars. It is possible today to invest in a company that researches and implements methods of inducing addiction to smartphone apps. What does it mean to be addicted to distractions? It will take the balance of this book to follow the ramifications of the malady, but, in short, it is the loss of the ability to have thoughts that are sufficiently deep and long to be adequate to our interior needs.

The phenomenon of addiction reminds us that habits are not always good habits. What is the difference between distraction and responsible attention, between mind-numbing watching and mindful seeing, between losing oneself in keeping up with the next thing, and finding oneself in sustained reflection? To answer that question, we need to reflect on the virtues and vices of attention. The power to notice or pay attention to the world is one of our most basic powers, and like every other power it can be used well or poorly. As we have seen, attention is a cognitive power, but not purely an intellectual one: it is first located in the brain with the power Aristotle called the common sense. It is involved not only in theoretical reflection but in fact in all realms of human activity, including every-day, mundane tasks. Our attention is aroused by and oriented toward things, and it moves us to be disposed toward things positively or negatively. Human attention is as closely connected to our own subjective desiring (or being averse to) objects as it is to apprehending the content of those objects themselves.

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In treating our need to be resilient to physical pain and to have silence as a context for attentive hearing, we have laid a foundation of fruitful asceticism for our sensory lives. Now it is time to take a positive step by making a choice for a work of attention through the control or custody of our eyes, a work of watchfulness. There are two necessary starting points for that work. The first is to recognize that not every possible object of sight is equally worthy. The second is to be persuaded that the office of sight is not chiefly to serve our sensory delight, but to serve our good as creatures with intellect and will, creatures who know and love. Instead of allowing appearances to direct and control our desire to see, we must let rightly ordered desire direct our vision, so that objects may be to us like icons through which to discern hidden spiritual realities.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distractionwhich is available as an ebook and paperback from Sophia Institute Press.


Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. Dr. Christopher Blum teaches courses in philosophy and on the history of evangelization and Catholic culture. | Joshua P. Hochschild is associate professor of philosophy and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Mount St. Mary’s University.

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