Can distraction be a good response to suffering?
I want to say… yes.
How I distract myself when tragedy strikes:
Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself turning more and more to ‘distraction’. That’s why you haven’t heard much from me! By that I mean, I’ve re-ignited my passion for writing essays, for reading fiction and fan-fiction, and drawing.
In the past month or two I’ve…
- Why I idolise bravery (and the problems it causes)
- The lays of Ancient Rome (how a poem inspired a generation)
- Sherlock vs. Shakespeare (what makes a classic?)
- The problem with redeeming Severus Snape
- I want a funeral like hers
- The importance of being Ernest | The Blade Runner (audio)
- Locked Rooms | The Language of Bees | God of the Hive
- The Guiltless | The Poor of God |A place for Warriors
- A monster calls | Conquistadors (audio)
- Me Before You | The Innocence of Father Brown
- Story Genius | God is Enough | Show, Don’t Tell
Only one of these is about cancer (and that, incidentally) and none about pancreatic cancer. Only one of the songs and one of the books are ‘Christian’.
Yet all have something in common:
- they are easy hobbies to commence, the sort you can ‘pick up – put down’
- they are complex enough to demand at least 50% of my attention, and often much more
- they are portable – ie. I can read on my phone; I can write essays in my head
- They obliquely impact my world. By this I mean: when I read fiction or write essays I find myself analyzing relationships and reactions, and this can help me understand or appreciate my own relationships and reactions.
Is it right to distract myself when life is hard?
Of course all of these are relatively ‘inconsequential’. They’re the sort of pastime people, Watchers in particular, might feel guilty ‘indulging’ in. In Christian circles especially, I think perhaps we want to jump in with “if you seek Jesus you will have no need for ‘distraction'”.
Besides, when you’re hit with tragedy, shouldn’t you be reading non-fiction books about suffering, or using your ‘creative’ time to make meals, or processing your thoughts on your blog rather than writing essays about fiction characters?
In theory, these questions sound legitimate. And yet, over the years I’ve come to a few realisations:
1. Sometimes the time to process tragedy is not while you are living it.
- Have you ever begun a book about ‘issues’ and thought, “what a waste, reading this now while life is peachy – I’ll bookmark it and begin to read when things get hard”? I have… yet the reality is, when life does get hard, I find I have no desire to read someone else’s processing of the issue. Instead I find myself drawing on what I’ve digested in the past – I’m simply to over-whelmed to learn something new in this season.
2. Sometimes distraction is the only holiday you’re going to get.
- As much as we all dream about physically taking a holiday or a respite when the going gets tough, the reality is that is often impossible. I don’t mean just the logistics. If you’re anything like me, even if you’re lying on a picnic rug lapping up the sun-shine, you’ve hardly escaped from the situation. It’s still tickling in the back of your mind, colouring your thoughts – as it should. It is reality, after all. Yet in these situation sometimes the best ‘break’ you can enjoy is one in a fictional world, or a hobby that takes up 100% of your attention. Often ‘filling the space’ is more relaxing than emptying it.
3. Sometimes distraction is the best way of processing
- Distraction can actually help me understand reality. An obvious example is that by exploring pain in fictional characters I can come to a greater understanding of it in the ‘real world’. Many of us, however may not choose to delve into fictional universes, yet still distraction can help. This is because indulging in distraction reminds us of who we are aside from whatever is going on in our life at the moment. Spending time drawing, or laughing with friends can give us a much-needed objectivity with which to process the situation.
When is distraction the wrong response to suffering?
For all these positives, I think most of us are aware that distraction can be a negative response as well.
1. Distraction can become more important than Jesus
I think this is obvious in theory, but in practice can be difficult to discern. I find these guidelines helpful:
- I need to turn to Jesus first, before seeking distraction
- I need to be able to talk to Jesus about my hobbies and distractions
- I need to be willing to give up my distraction if it’s coming between me and Him
2. Distraction can prevent us loving others
This can be a tricky one, because all of us need rest away from people at some point, but again, it’s about priorities
- Am I choosing distraction as a way of avoiding being hurt by others?
- Is distraction a way of fleeing responsibilities?
- Am I willing to give up my distraction in an instant if it will benefit someone else?
3. Distraction can destroy reality
This is where questions about the ‘right’ an ‘wrong’ types of distraction come in. Knitting can be a helpful distraction, but drinking may not be. This is because:
- Distraction should not diminish our ability to deal with reality
- Distraction should not be about removing reality or removing us from reality
- If distraction is hurting ourselves or others (whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually), it’s not helpful
4. Distraction can become an indefinite response
Life is about seasons. Distraction can be part of a season, but it was never created to be an on-going crutch. Some questions I find helpful are:
- Do I feel as though I need this distraction to deal with life, or is it simply a God-given aid or blessing?
- Do I sense this period of distraction coming to a natural end anytime soon, and if not, should I seek its conclusion?
- What have I learnt from this period of distraction, and how am I going to apply that?
Whether distraction is ‘right’ is actually the least of your worries
It sounds ridiculous to say that after I’ve written eight hundred words on the topic, but it’s true. Distraction itself is not actually that important. Much better to spend your thought-space and emotional-energy on loving God and the people around you than debating whether distraction is right or wrong.
We will make mistakes, we will fail. At times we will worship distraction rather than God. We will misuse it and unhealthily elevate it. Our God is a God of forgiveness.
So pursue God and don’t waste unnecessary time debating!
When we worship God first and foremost, ‘distraction’ will fall into its proper place as a healthy, helpful blessing, not a sovereign master. And when this happens, distraction is a good response to tragedy.
// What about you? Do you have any experience in ‘distraction’?
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