You may have already looked at something else. It’s ok, I don’t judge you. Go ahead, do it again. Click on your email. Look at your phone. I think there’s a facebook status that just popped up.
Even writing those words makes me want to do them. So go ahead. Give in.
And when you come back, can you feel it? It’s so small, that little bit of work, to pop away and back. It’s just a tiny little bit of jarring sensation, a pinprick really. Just an infinitesimal out of sequence bit of information that your brain now has to shuffle.
We accumulate the effort it takes to live life out of sequence. It is painful to manage so many streams of information.
You want some sources?
I (mostly) read all these. I vaguely remembered hearing this info and it felt anecdotally true, so I looked up a few that seemed semi-reputable and there they are above. I know at some point I read something about how “linking” culture specifically fragments the attention span but a 5 minute google search wasn’t fruitful fast enough to find the study, so you’ll have to take my word. I did find another article that is basically saying what I’m saying right here at this very moment. So if you don’t like my presentation of the subject, you can use that one.
You feel like you already know this. You, like me, might have read a few articles about it. You haven’t actually read the studies. Who reads the studies? Clearly the article’s source did (right?). Usually, you are made to feel bad about this. You didn’t really do your homework about brain stress from the internet or organic vegetables or the studio musicians on that band’s last three albums. And chances are you don’t need it anyway, because increasingly, to paraphrase a comic I enjoy, knowing and not knowing start to feel like the same thing. Better yet, why have me paraphrase? Just watch him say it:
I didn’t even watch it to the end. (Be honest, you didn’t either).
Don’t feel bad. Even if it’s in your field. Even if it’s something you really ought to do. The effort you waste in reloading the page and skimming two sentences and putting it back into the unread category in your email is a waste. Don’t mourn not getting back to the really important person on time. You didn’t. Oh well. There are so many potential articles to read it becomes over whelming to think about actually taking the time to sit down and get through 30 pages of anything.
We cannot all be experts about everything. We cannot even be experts about all aspects of the thing we ARE experts on. Perhaps the word expert itself becomes meaningless in an age where the gap information and knowledge grows wider and wider. Is it better not to know if you don’t have time to actually understand? Is the surface “got it” level depth of information even meaningful? When there is so much information is skimming to stay on top of it all helpful? I make lists of lists of information I need to gather some day.
In the midst of all this whining I propose a meditation:
There is glory in a timed exam.
It is a defined period of time in which, regardless of the preparation or lack thereof that has come before it, there is a single goal and no possibility to engage in any other activity.
I, for my part, have always loved them. I love a ticking clock. I love the feel of a fast approaching buzzer. I love the butterflies in my stomach as I wait to begin. I love a defined set of questions that I will throw myself at to the best of my ability and walk away knowing there is no more I can possibly do.
In college during organic chemistry exams I kept a store of pencils because I would write so hard I would break them, one after the other, when I wasn’t paying attention.
A timed test is a kind of perfection. There is a single thing, and I am the single person to do it. Regardless of what I might wish to have done in the past to prepare, my job at this moment is to concentrate on the data I have taken in, use it towards a measurable end and offer back my evaluation of it. In its highest form it is not a assessment of information, it is a meditation on understanding.
The glory of a test is the grandeur of an interview in which one person sits across from another in an actual time and place and looks them in the eye and reflects on their being and potential worth.
It is the splendor of the sporting event where a group of people meet for a defined period to accomplish as many defined physical targets as they are able.
It is the miraculous beauty of live performance in which entertainment or grief or boredom cannot be exchanged for an alternate experience.
These are the moments when our attentions are required. There is no question about what needs to happen. These events “are”, they require us to “be” in them and because of that rareness they are a kind of holiness.
(Now, you know you want to, go ahead, do it, check your email.)
When I graduated from college a professor at my school named Barry Schwartz spoke at our baccalaureate. He is famous for his writing on “The Paradox of Choice.”
These are not the things I remember. I remember that I saw him in person. I sat there and I had to listen to him saying something that I remember as:
You graduates may feel like you have infinite options before you. Trust me, I know this, infinite options will paralyze you.
And I know that right now it’s the only aspect of his output that I’ve absorbed. This is the take away. Not that we are doomed. That we are the potential saviors. Listen: Performance is a rescue.
It is a life line. In every work of art there is a defeat of the infinite expanse. To make anything is to conquer the potential of everything.
Specificity is a victory.
People’s minds in a room together for a defined space of time is triumph.
To require attention in the face of every other possibility is success.
This is why live performance is necessary. This is why volume doesn’t matter. Because in a world where the difference between knowing and not knowing is negligible, what we can offer the world are experiences that cannot be summoned on command, that demand us to engage. To make us sit there and force us to watch, perhaps even move us against our will.
A theater that is live has this power.
And it asks us to experience that power from the beginning all the way until the end.