“A man walks down the street,
He says, Why am I short of attention?
Got a short little span of attention,
And whoa, my nights are so long!”
-Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”
At a recent meeting of some committee or other at the church where I work, a well-meaning woman suggested that there was too much time during an average weekly service when nothing was happening. “Dead time,” she called it, a term that reminded me of college radio days when “dead air” was the paramount sin, driving listeners to turn the dial and forsake us for a commercial station. The woman explained that she had been visiting other area churches, and that they always had something going on to engage the audience congregation. In the time that one of our pastors paused to allow reflection, or the minute it took the organist to walk from organ to piano, the tenuous connection would be lost, and folks would begin thinking about the next tailgate, the World Series, or whether they could check their cell phones without being caught. No one, apparently, can be expected to sit still and think for entire five minute periods. (And we are talking about adults, here – the children are sent away to Sunday School).
I get it; it’s the age of being constantly connected, getting information 24-7 and instant access to pretty much anything, anywhere if you have the money and the equipment. I am not reinventing the wheel, here (although I can assure you that if Iwere reinventing the wheel I would be able to concentrate. Even when it got tedious. Even when I really wanted to do something else. Even if my work was accompanied by not so much as a catchy song, bright colors, a comedy team or frequent references to pop culture. I would just sit down with the damned wheel, some paper and a pencil or two, maybe a cup of coffee and work until I was sure I’d accomplished something).
At the risk of veering into No Child of Mine Is Going To See That Filthy Elvis Presley Person territory, I was brung up to cope with boredom and discomfort as parts of life. Life was not entirely planned for my amusement, but the rewards for hanging in and paying attention were tremendous. We were taken to classical performances and the theater starting in nursery school, and we behaved ourselves. After dinner at a restaurant, we had to be patient while our parents drank coffee and talked to their friends. It was incredibly, epically dull, a shining monument to “dead time,” except…it wasn’t. My brother and I played Hangman and Tic Tac Toe, we made up stories, and because we were (usually) so good, we were praised, adored, and given tastes of wonderful and exotic things. My parents did lots of things for us, but their lives were not devoted to creating for us an endless circus in which we were perpetually entertained. We were not allowed to say we were bored, ever; “bored people are boring people” was in my father’s heaviest rotation, along with “you don’t have to slam the door on the car.”
Few greater gifts have been given to me. In law school, I hated Property Law, which was like reading notes in Serbo-Croatian that had been chewed on by wolves before being reassembled in random order. I made a plan, I spent hundreds of hours slogging, and I learned what I needed to know. When I was a musician, I had to practice long hours – not the fun part where you play the beautiful, melodic passage really loud with lots of vibrato, but the thing where you zero in on the measures that totally throw you, and make your mouth dry with terror. You play that passage over and over, first at a glacial pace, and then increasing the speed by barely perceptible increments until you are able to get it most of the time at the correct tempo. It’s just not all that entertaining, but it does make it possible to face the orchestra rehearsal, private lesson or audition with a reasonable degree of confidence. The technique can also be used for kicking a soccer ball correctly and accurately, rolling a croissant, and cutting mitered corners that fit together as if ordained by God.
I know this is a world in which everyone has ADHD, things move quickly, and children (including mine) have grown up with the ability to know anything instantly using a computer, and to be in constant contact with a cast of thousands. There never needs to be a second of boredom, or “Dead Time,” if you have a cell phone packed with Angry Birds, Netflix movies, and texting capability. I’m entirely guilty of filling up odd moments with games, texts and Facebook. I am, however, capable of sticking with a difficult novel until it opens into my mind, listening to someone tell a long story, or meditating in silence. Although church services are not my cup of spiritual tea, I believe that I would welcome pauses to give thanks, send silent petitions to God, or simply think about the words of scripture or sermon. I cannot imagine any quality life of the mind without blank spaces, the cracks in the sidewalk that allow a flower of imagination to grow towards the sun.
I thank you for sitting through this sermon, and I’m going to trust that you have gotten through even the dullest parts without looking at Facebook or getting a snack. The only sin, in this religion of mine, is to let the outside world fill your brain so thoroughly with noise, and light and activity that there is no room for imagination, meaningful knowledge, or meditative space. Salvation comes from cherishing “dead time,” welcoming it wholeheartedly, and making it the very foundation of a life well lived.