Typically, before a talk, we prepare ourselves for being information receptacles by emptying our minds of all of the stuff that has been floating around, free form in our minds, waiting to take shape and displace the words entering our ears. The speaker may even encourage this with a prayer or a word, encouraging us to prepare our minds and hearts for the words of the bible.
A good and noble practice no doubt. We are (or at least I am) quite able to sit for 15-40 mins and not hear a single thing for the sake of trying to remember if I put out my washing or not.
Here though I want to defend distraction, not just as a potential defence mechanism against a bad talk (although there is that) but more as part of the continual responsibility of the hearer to respond to the speaker.
While speakers may bear the burden of preparing a talk, giving a talk, and hearing feedback, the listeners do have responsibilities beyond just agreeing or disagreeing. Words are an effective tool for sharing ideas, and I don't want to too sharply distinguish words from action (after all, John felt no such compulsion in his gospel) but truths are not perfected until they are enacted, while they feel good mushing around in our minds, they feel even better when they are enacted in people's lives.
So the importance of being distracted
Being distracted can perhaps be said to be part of an ethics of listening (or reading) that we have to figure it out how the words impact us as individuals, or a group. One way one can do this is to distil the talk into an idea, and then apply that later, at your own leisure, by yourself, or with others.
This is a good idea, and I recommend it. But a talk is rarely just one idea, there are asides, rambles, flashes of inspiration and throwaway comments, all of which usually get distilled out, rather than included in. Hence, to be distracted means to be receptive to these little comments, the general flow of the talk, within the context of your own life. By the context of your own life I don't mean the state of your washing, necessarily, but I mean something much much more.
We all of us are made of narratives, stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Some of them just starting, some of them soon to finish. By being distracted, I mean recognising our part in all of these narratives we inhabit. Don't pretend to be stepping outside of real life when you sit in the pew, the lecture hall or the computer desk with your headphones on.
Instead bring the full force of your life on to the talk, all the stages you are at in your various narratives. Remind yourself of them as you listen, and pay attention to the way in which the talk impacts them, intervenes in them, introduces new twists or reminds you of something you forgot. It is not our duty to check out of real life when we hear a talk, but rather to invest ourselves even more fully within it.
So readers, have you read this and already thought of the ways in which you have checked out of real life, perhaps one of my parenthetical statements stood out to you, did you consider its impact on your life? Agree or disagree with the way it makes you think about your own life?
Was there a sense of intervention in the way this piece interacted with your life? I hope there was, because both writing and speaking are parts of my narratives, and this way hopefully it will be a part of yours too.
Dale Wang (23) is completing an MA in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch while making slightly passable coffee at Starbucks. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading bible studies.
Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html