Change in the Age of Shallow

My attention span isn’t what it used to be. While reading a terrific book last night, I noticed my itchiness for the end of the chapter. It felt forever away. The chapter ran thirteen pages. Apparently, thirteen pages is my new eternity.

Maybe you can relate: The moment you wish a 90-second YouTube video would get to the point. The moment you yearn for a red light so you can catch up on email. The moment you need to check a new text message during dinner with friends. This growing impatience dangerously impedes our ability to stick with things that matter.

I’m sure some teenage whippersnapper will suggest I’m simply recreating the tendency of our grandparents to overstate the distance they walked to school. They didn’t walk uphill both ways, always in blizzard conditions.

But our attention spans are slipping. According to a new book, our physical brains have adapted to our shared shiny rock syndrome. In The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr argues we have lost the ability to last. We skim and scan, but rarely sustain. While debate remains whether our brains have physiologically changed in the digital age, my experience certainly affirms Carr’s thesis. Maybe it’s my world-in-my-hand smartphone. Or, maybe I subconsciously yearn for the days when my dad’s car phone was a connectedness marvel. No matter the reason, I’m itchier than I was five years ago.

I wonder how our multitasking influences how we view change within people. Even Desmond, my two year old, rapidly switches between apps on my iPhone (…and no, parental purists, I’m not too proud to admit he borrows it at restaurants). I mean, goodness, he gets unruly halfway through Goodnight Moon.

Does the age of shallows stunt our patience? On a recent trip to India, I walked through a “slum among slums.” Conditions were abysmal, and I craved a “fix and flip” solution to the wrenching problems. I questioned whether I had the endurance to invest in the sort of change that demands time. I questioned whether my millennial sensibilities would allow for the sort of steady and faithful life-on-life investment needed for true growth.

We need to recalibrate to a longer view. Bangladesh cut infant mortality by two thirds and more than doubled female literacy over the past twenty years. The “rise of globalization and the spread of capitalism” halved extreme poverty worldwide over the same time. The Church spreads at unprecedented rates south of the equator. It’s not instant, but it is remarkable.

We need a personal recalibration too. Good change is rarely immediate. Friendships demand TLC. Marital harmony is more like a slow cooker than a microwave. A virtuous life is not “acquired spontaneously” but rather a “product of long-term training, developed through practice.” Desmond didn’t master the barnyard animal puzzle overnight. These good things demand the long view, but the Information Age clouds us from seeing it.

Change takes time. In a broadband world, Indian slums prompt frustration with the measured pace of change. But in the case of a wayward sibling or a forlorn slum, slow can be good. The knight on his white horse creates a scene, but he doesn’t change anything. Hitting the jackpot makes waves, not change. Healthy change is incremental and it emerges through faithfulness. In our sound byte society, we need the discipline to wait for it.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

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