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The long and the short of it

The long and the short of it

My brain might be broken.

It’s windy and surprisingly brisk as I walk along the shoreline by the San Francisco airport. I’m a bit stuck today in a hotel, having arrived much earlier than I needed for my work event tomorrow. But there is a walkway by the water. And where there is a trail and time, I walk.

This is not a pretty path. The sea wall consists of large chunks of broken concrete dumped haphazardly against the buffeting waves. It’s as if they’re fighting chaos with chaos, restlessness with broken attention.

Today, I’m thinking about how we think. I’m a few chapters into a new book entitled, Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age. In it, the author, Samuel James, proposes that the web doesn’t just pose a threat to us because of the content we encounter, but by the form through which we get that content.

As I’ve mused on this, I realize that one of those forms that has radically restructured our brains is the delivery of shortened narratives. This has been a gradual descent: first YouTube trained us to want our stories to be under three minutes long. Now TikTok clips and Facebook Reels shorten narratives to half a minute or less. Quick cuts in movies reduce our attention to mere seconds.

We’re training our brains to crave micro-bites of content.

We’re not even aware of the danger of what we’re becoming. It’s not just that we’re growing incapable of long thought. There’s a spiritual component.

Our enemy, the great Deceiver, wants to bring de-creation. He wants to undo the order and meaning that God has given the world. That’s why the Biblical writers repeatedly use the restless sea as a metaphor for the forces aligned against creation.

So, by atomizing narratives, the Deceiver can make our thoughts flitting and agitated, never seeking the deeper meaning, the slower reveal. Eventually, stories are so broken, they exist only for a moment’s subjective pleasure. The bigger story is lost.

Scripture has the antidote. Meditation.

One generation commends your works to another;
    they tell of your mighty acts.

 They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—
    and I will meditate on your wonderful works. (Ps. 125:4-5)

It may be that as we pass on the recounting of “the works of God” to the next generation, we may also need to teach how to think slowly -- how to muse on a metaphor, letting it grow over time. How to live in the unhurried pace of truth, where the delight in understanding is a product of deep roots.

How do I retrain my brain? Today, I watch the planes landing at SFO, descending behind a lone tree in my view – a perfect picture of the long and the short of one’s thought life. There are clear next steps. Limit exposure to short videos. Read. Meditate more.

And, like today, sit and force myself to slow down and watch the unfolding narrative of life.

For deep truths are not learned in a moment.

God of the ages, retrain our brains to think more deeply, more contemplatively, about your eternal truths. Help us to be aware of how we are being shaped by the world in which we live.

Reader: do you share my struggle with a shortening attention span? I’d love to hear about how you’re counteracting that.

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Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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