I received this notebook for Christmas. It’s a present from my husband and daughters. They know I love notebooks and journals, and I’ve been wanting a new one. Inside is an encouraging message about my writing, written by my husband.
Like so many bloggers, I think of myself as a writer. I even have one book to show for it. But my usual reflex when someone says, “You should write a book” is, “I have nothing to say.” Nevertheless, when my husband asks me, as he occasionally does, “What do you want to do?” my answer is, “Write.” I’m a verbalizer, a generator of words, a stalker of experiences the meaning of which can be spelled out and shaped into sentences.
So I’ve been writing a little in my new notebook. No perfectly formed book is leaping from my fevered brain. But I feel already that the writing is valuable, that it is an act of discovery. And what I’m discovering is how little joy I have in my life. It’s not because I am emotionally depressed. It’s because I am chronically distracted — distracted with a distraction I have actively pursued and zealously implemented in all sorts of ways. David Ulin and Nicholas Carr have both written about the way the Internet is changing the way we think, and making us less able to concentrate. But what they don’t really talk about is how very much that distraction is something we crave (or at least, I do). It’s not that our technology is doing to us something we didn’t expect. It’s performing exactly as we’ve created it to perform, and perpetrating on us exactly what we want. Or what we think we want. Until we realize it leaves us tired and unfulfilled.
For instance, blogging. For several years I’ve blogged, and I really enjoy it. It even has had the virtue of developing a discipline of regular writing. The problem is that it has become the only writing I do, and it is writing with some built-in limitations. I don’t get too personal in a blog post. I can’t go on for very long to develop an idea. Even at its most intellectual, it’s by nature a fairly superficial form of writing because of these limitations.
Writing in my notebook that no one else will ever read, I realize that in a way, blogging is a distraction from the things lurking under the surface that fascinate a writer and demand to be given shape and expression. My notebook writing goes a little deeper and has a different purpose than blog writing. It’s writing as exploration, writing as excavation, writing to generate more writing. Perhaps it’s writing as prayer, with God as the ultimate Muse. It can be that because it’s not written for anyone’s consumption. I’m realizing how much I’ve missed journalling. But it’s work. Writing longhand forces me to slow down. My handwriting doesn’t look as nice scrawled across the page as print does on a slick blog template with a few images thrown in. And always, in the back of my mind, is the little voice saying, “Maybe nothing will come of this. This writing has no audience. What’s the point?”
There is a point, Little Voice. I’m not sure what it is yet, but there is a point.
Another pleasure that easily tips into becoming a distraction is reading. There is not a thing wrong with reading, and I will always be a reader. But I reach for a book whenever I have a spare moment. It’s a way to keep my mind “busy.” After three years or so of reading about a book a week and churning out a book review for my blog, I feel glutted with books — books I’ve swallowed quickly and moved on to the next one without pausing for very long to reflect or process along the way. Rather than stopping to figure out how the books are being incorporated into my thinking (and most of them are becoming so incorporated, whether I notice or not), I’m moving on to the next one.
Why am I so bent on distraction?
Maybe it’s because joy, as I think of joy, comes through fully experiencing life, and the moment I turn away from the things I’ve instituted to keep me busy, I’m faced with a raft of things I don’t know how to deal with. I’m good with long-term goals. But working them out is usually much more mundane, and I have a hard time staying engaged in the mundane. Turning off the computer and picking up a pen, or turning to my mundane life for today, the first thing I feel is frustration and uncertainty. Why would I want to “fully experience” those? So much easier to turn to one of my distractions.
The reason I like to read John Eldredge from time to time is that he talks about the heart — the heart, which I’ve given to God, the seat of my deepest desires. It’s so easy to put it on the shelf. But God draws us along into his purposes for us through the desires of our hearts. I keep myself busy enough to ignore those desires, maybe because I figure they won’t be met or because I don’t know how to deal with them. But somehow, that’s where joy is: keeping the heart engaged in the impulses and disciplines of my mundane life.
Eldredge quotes C.S. Lewis, from “The Weight of Glory,” where Lewis says that the things
in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them; and what came through them was longing. These things… are good images of what we desire, but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself.
The challenge for me is to keep blogging and reading (neither of which I have any intention of quitting), and the other things I’ve used to distract and busify me, as mere “images,” and not “dumb idols.”
I thought too of this passage from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. He’s speaking of how God will not force his way into our hearts, but must be invited in:
The door must be opened by a willing hand, ere the foot of love will cross the threshold. He watches to see the door move from within. Every tempest is but an assault in the siege of love. The terror of God is but the other side of his love; it is love outside the house, that would be inside — love that knows the house is no house, only a place, until it enter — no home, but a tent, until the Eternal dwell there. Things must be cast out to make room for their souls — the eternal truths which in things find shape and show.
Somehow what he’s describing there sounds to me like joy. Here’s to the search for those eternal truths behind the things I have used to keep me busy.