Attention: a tension

This past Thursday morning, my dad told me that the conflict in Israel just escalated one more step. He said Israel sent in ground troops to the Gaza Strip, whereas before they had not involved footsoldiers in the conflict. I had a feeling of uneasiness for five minutes or so, then the feeling quickly faded because I stopped thinking about Israel.

This occasion is one instance of a pattern I see frequently in my life–and I think other people see this pattern in their lives too. What pattern? I learn something that happened or is happening somewhere else, feel a faint emotion regarding the event, realize the event doesn’t really or doesn’t at all affect me, and effectively forget about the event. This pattern happens so often that I am thoroughly confused about what to do with these far-off events. Should I be affected by them or not? Should I even give them my attention? Many people, probably including you, wrestle with this question. And though the question is simple, the answer is not.

I will use my life as an example to try to find an answer. To start, I must know where in my life this issue arises. The obvious part of my life in which it shows up is on the Internet, particularly in social media. Nations tussle with each other; friends get engaged and married; people travel to distant places; and many other occasions are shown to me that seem exciting or nerve-wracking but don’t change my life much, if at all.

The second place in my life I see this struggle with empathy and apathy toward a situation is in the places I live. For the majority of the past four years I have been in a college town–but not for the entirety of each year. I also spend multiple weeks at my parents’ house during breaks from school. Consequently, I interact with people in both locations and frequently meet people for the first time. This is also true for people who travel at all: they meet people who live far away from their home and create friendships that, without their travelling to that place, would not have formed. My personality (and I believe everyone’s, to various degrees) longs to maintain many of these new friendships, and I honestly do my best to invest in (i.e. spend time with, get to know, care for) people I meet. However, try as I might, I fail to stay in communication with every person I meet. Indeed, even with the people I see regularly, I find it an enormous and exhausting challenge to spend more time with them than my default schedule allows. Some of this is the result of character flaws, and I admit I must work on improving these, by the power of God’s Spirit in me. However, a significant part of this problem is because I am merely one person.

There is my struggle: I am one person with limited time and energy with which I can invest in other people. Yet with modern technology and my two simultaneous homes (and likely other factors of which I haven’t thought), I feel immense pressure. This pressure tries to make me at least remain cognizant of the people I meet and the events of which I become aware, and at most become actively involved with these people and events.

In my head, this hurts to consider. In my heart, I know this is impossible. Yet in my hands I see actions to try and appease this pressure, to ease this tension between my human limitations and technological opportunities.

There is the problem: I am trying to do the impossible.

After dissecting the problem of how much I should interact with all the things I learn, I have no answer for how to do away with the tension. I do, however, have some remarks regarding how to live with it. I have no doubt that other people, possibly including you, live with this problem as well. As such, we should remain aware of both this pressure to interact with all events and people, and our inherent limitations as humans. We can only think, feel and do to an extent–to say this another way, our energy has an end.

I see some detrimental results of this pressure in myself. The first is that I tend to feel jealous of the people whom are doing exciting things. To combat this, I have learned to focus on two thoughts: surely their lives aren’t always glamorous, and even if they are, their life is not my life. God has made me a unique person with a unique life, and my unique life cannot be compared with another person’s unique life; in essence, I practice God-centered contentment (see 1 Timothy 6:6-8). God is taking me on a journey of my own, and he loves me individually. This is true for everyone, including you. I don’t always remember to fight jealousy with contentment: sometimes I let jealousy get the best of me. If this happens to you as well, know you are not alone and that God will never leave you for any reason, but will help you let go of the jealousy if you let him.

The second consequence of this pressure of whether or not to interact with all things of which we become aware is that I grow dissatisfied with my own “slow” and “dull” life. One way I have found to counter this discontentment is to take an honest look at my past. After doing so, I realize my life has not been slow and dull; no, many times it has been quite the contrary. Your life probably hasn’t been slow and dull either, if you’re honest with yourself. Also, God uses all situations to help his children grow and mature: the fast- and slow-paced, the exciting and the dull, the painless and the painful (see Romans 8:28).

Ultimately, I am convinced that we should remain aware of this pressure between knowledge and interactions with distant events and people, and ask God for wisdom to decide with which we will interact and which we will let happen without our involvement.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep and a time to cast away.”

— Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5-6

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