On the importance of repetition and the dangers of distraction
… and the importance of repetition (just a little joke for myself there).
One of the men in my life, D, has a strong religious faith and attends fully to the readings in his place of worship, always looking to extract a lesson, always open to learning something.
Recently this came up:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then, to help me.’ But the Lord answered her ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.
Interestingly, D has known this story since he was about eight years old, more than five decades ago, and he has heard it many, many times since then. But it was only on this day that he was able to fully operationalise the lesson. He has recently found himself ‘distracted’ by many and varied demands which, when he thought about it, were not ‘the better part’. He has effectively found himself overwhelmed with, or distracted by, obligations and tasks that are demanding, time consuming and not overly meaningful, and are no longer aligned with his values and the way he wants to live his life. Respect to D – he had already started to implement the necessary changes.
And now to the dangers of distraction. Distraction, like many terms used in the context of psychological health and wellbeing can be understood in a variety of ways. Here it is used to refer to a class of behaviours that function as experiential avoidance – deliberately drawing attention away from difficult or unwanted thoughts and feelings in an attempt to reduce emotional distress (a reminder: The Six Core Processes in ACT, for the non-ACTers out there). Flexibly shifting attention is qualitatively different from ‘distraction’. Contact with the present moment might include flexibly narrowing, broadening, sustaining or shifting attention as desired. Only when one shifts attention with the primary aim of experiential avoidance would we think of it as ‘distraction’. When used moderately, flexibly, and appropriately, distraction can be helpful – we all do it sometimes (think dentist’s chair!). However, like any form of experiential avoidance, when distraction is used excessively, inflexibly or inappropriately it can become a bigger and bigger problem as life becomes smaller and less connected.
Ultimately, ask yourself, how do you want to live your life? Do you want a life that you need to distract yourself from? Like Martha, a life where you are so caught up in the detail of chores (or avoidance of difficult content) that you let the best bits pass you by? Or would you like a life more like Mary’s, one where you can tell the wheat from the chaff and bring your time and attention to what really matters?