How often do we think of distractions as inherently counterproductive? We scorn interruptions and lament the ubiquitous texts and the screens that insert themselves into the quiet of our lives. Last week in Maryland, vehicular hand held cell phone use became a primary offense; how many accidents are caused by distracted driving? We live in a society monumentally struggling to maintain focus on just about anything, a conversation, a project, a book, the road. We try to unitask in a multitasking world — and so often fail.
But can distraction ever be good? A couple weeks ago I had a distracted morning. I decided to go for a run around Druid Lake. It was early and the sun was just rising. It was so beautiful I felt compelled to stop, pause Rabbi David Wolpe’s podcast (I recommend them if you’re looking for some good Torah), and pull out my iPhone so I could snap a photo. But as the sunrise evolved and the sky took on different hues, as I made my way around the reservoir and saw the city-scape, the park, the lake, the Moorish Tower I stopped again and again to capture just the right angle, each new perspective.
Realizing I wasn’t getting my heart rate up, and running out of time to get back to the house, shower and drive the kids to school, I decided I’d better focus on my running. But a few minutes later, I passed by a group of gentlemen hanging out by the park’s exercise equipment. Among them was a man named Steve who was one of the first people I met when I came to Baltimore. That first summer, our workout schedules overlapped. He would introduce me to his buddies, and we would check-in, shoot the breeze and compare exercise notes. By that September morning I hadn’t seen Steve in well over a year, so of course I stopped to say hi. By the time I walked in the door to shower that morning, I had completed one single lap of Druid Lake (approximately 1 1/2 miles) in about 40 minutes. It was a terrible workout.
Our Sages tell us we should ideally say one hundred blessings a day, pausing time and again to acknowledge some aspect of God’s abundant, beautiful and purposeful world. The tradition gives us permission, even a mandate, to be distracted. But most times workouts must be completed, spouses relieved of their duties and kids delivered to classes on time. How do we know when to remain focused? Which experiences and encounters should grab our attention and distract from the routines of our lives? Perhaps the answer lies in the very screens that so often draw our attention. It used to be that screens were something we looked through to see the world — beyond our windows or front doors. Now screens are what we look at instead of the world around us.
That day in September I found myself mesmerized by the simple and elegant beauty of a sunrise, and I used my phone’s camera to capture the moment. That morning I was grateful to see a friendly face and I paused to reconnect. Blessings are our response to wonder, and wonder is the natural result of truly listening to the universe as it calls out to us. Humanity is calibrated to respond to that universe with gratitude and awe. We know when our time has been wasted. We know when we’ve allowed ourselves to be distracted from things that matter by things that don’t. And we know when the opposite is true.
That was the worst workout I’ve had in a while. But the best morning.