Some Thoughts on Diversion and Hurried Living

Stadtkirche (with clock tower), Wittenberg, Germany

Recently, on numerous occasions and across a variety of contexts, I’ve had my attention drawn to the topic of time; specifically, how I treat (and mistreat) it; that is, my time, my slowly but quite certainly expiring life.

These referents have served to remind me of how easily I give up my time to practices that, while they may be healthy if well-regulated, far too often eat up significant chunks of my day. For me, the temptation typically takes the form of watching sports, playing games, and just thumbing through social media. To be clear, I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with these activities. I readily agree that each can bring unique value to life and help us more meaningfully connect with others. Furthermore, even activities that are mere diversions need not be necessarily problematic. Rather, my internal quarrel is with the volume of time offered. Specifically, it is the ease with which I allow life to ebb away in these often expansive and unchecked windows of open time. As I have grown older with each passing year, the idea that mindless distractions and empty pleasures are experiences to be sought out and lived for strikes me as more and more perverse.

Now, I realize that this is far from a novel observation, but I also understand that personal stories of conviction, for the introspective reader, may help to move an important idea out of the background and into conscious awareness. With this in mind, I have gathered an abbreviated list of the ways I have recently been reminded of the dysfunction of diversion and mindless busyness.

Last week, in an Asbury chapel address, Dr. Kevin Brown referenced the ending of a poem by Robert Abrahams1 that struck this chord perfectly.

The Night They Burned Shanghai
Tonight Shanghai is burning
And we are burning too
What bomb more surely mortal
Than death inside of you
For some men die by shrapnel
And some go down in flames
But most men perish inch by inch
In play at little games.

My current readings on the Christian doctrines of virtues and vices have frequently brought to mind the life and thoughts of Blaise Pascal. Among his many interesting themes in his famous collection of thoughts, Pensees2, is the spotlight shone on the human pension for diversion. Here is just one of his scribbled comments on the topic:

The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.

View of Flossenburg, Germany from atop 12th century castle ruins

Men spend their time in following a ball or a hare; it is the pleasure even of kings.

Pascal, Pensees (141)

My Social Psychology course typically wraps up the semester studying helping behavior. One of the most significant research findings related to helping is the troubling role of hurriedness. In a famous study by John Darley and Daniel Batson3, the single biggest predictor of whether participants would stop and help a person in distress was how much time-pressure was applied to the participant by the features of the experiment. This lone variable well-outpaced all others in predicting who would stop and help. According to Darley and Batson, busyness diverts more of our attentional resources onto ourselves making us less able to detect others in our environment and less willing to give them our time if needed. In class we considered what this might mean for our ability to form meaningful communities in a world where people are getting busier and mind-numbing distractions sit permanently at our fingertips.  

Finally, as a semester comes to an end, I often leave my students with a poem by Carl Sandberg4:


I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the country. 
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: “Omaha.”

The puzzled look, so typically found on the faces of my student readers, suggests that although the pernicious effect of diversions may be far from a novel observation, it is perhaps, one that warrants repeated remembrance.

Bell Tower in Leipzig, Germany

1Robert Abrahams, 1939, The Saturday Evening Post.

2Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 171.

3Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D. 1973. From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

4Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, 1916