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Elizabeth Oldfield: How I managed to stop myself pinging around

23 May 2024

Resist distractions in modern life to stay focused on what matters, Elizabeth OIdfield advises


WHEN I was 22, I went skiing and shattered my left leg, coming home after a helicopter rescue and five days in a French hospital with 21 pins in my tibia and three in my fibula.

Four months into my first six-month BBC contract, I was facing a long recovery period with no idea whether I’d still have a job at the end. I couldn’t weight-bear at all for months, and so washing myself, shopping for food, or carrying cups of tea from one room to another was impossible. After two days of sobbing alone in my flat with a caffeine-withdrawal headache, I moved back home with my parents.

It was a record-scratch pause in the Sex and the City-soundtracked film montage in my mind. My London friends carried on going to the theatre and out for drinks on the South Bank, while I watched back-to-back episodes of America’s Next Top Model in my magnolia childhood home. My recovery lined up coincidentally with a flurry of family funerals. None were for people I was very close to, but I was struggling to look after myself, so had to go along. Wheeled into churches and crematoria by my parents, blurry with pain and frustration, I observed the strange rite from a distanced, anthropological perspective. Whereas most people in their twenties can go years or decades without hearing a eulogy, I listened to a decent sample in the course of a few weeks.

David Brooks is right about eulogies. They are a distillation of our philosophy of the good life. The things people choose to say (and not say) about a dead person seemed, through my opiate haze, to be telling me something important. No one spent much time talking about jobs. A brief factual list, but mainly in reference to what the person had meant to colleagues. If their work had left a legacy of compassion or creativity, it might get more than a mention, but only rarely.

Some of the dead were successful, some ordinary, some attractive, some not, but these things did not crop up. The focus of the eulogies was relentlessly relational. What was left of a person was their imprint on others, as a friend, child, neigh­bour, colleague, parent, partner, community volunteer. How much they cared, how they showed up. How well they loved.

After the third funeral, I sat in an armchair with a Thermos of tea that I’d made in the kitchen and crutched through to the lounge in a backpack, and wrote in my prayer journal: “I don’t want to get distracted by ambition and being impres­sive. I want the focus of my life to be relationships.”

I hope I’m not the only person who fantasises about their funeral, and the packed cathedral of devastated loved ones. It was partly a self-interested realisation that loving well would make that scene more likely. It also, though, felt like a real spiritual challenge — did I believe a life defined by love was a good life? If my accident had been worse, and I was never able to achieve my ambitions, did I still believe that loving God and loving people was all that really mattered, in the end?

I’m still grateful for that day. I got a dose of what many only receive later, with a cancer scare, major bereavement, or similar brush with mortality. I had a clear-sighted moment of knowing what I wanted my life to be about. These moments thin the fog temporarily, puncture the delusions and distractions that keep us from that sight.

Consequently, I have tried to live as if my relationships with others and the divine are the main thing, where I devote most of my attention. This has taken a lot of pressure off all the other stuff. I think it makes me happy. In a competitive, individualist world, deluged with technological toys, however, the fog of distraction is always threatening to steal this focus.


WHEN I pine for my phone, I can feel it on my skin, a tingle akin to a lover walking into the room. Patricia Lockwood calls it “the portal”, glowing with the promise of significance and connection. Smartphones act like the enchanted Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter, which shows us what our heart desires, but never allows us to reach out and take it. Dumbledore tells Harry, after he’s sat up all night gazing at it, “Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”

Perhaps I am especially susceptible to the lure of tech­nological connection, unusually weak-willed, because I have sometimes felt like I am being driven mad. I have two young children, and all too regularly have a phone in my hand when they are trying to talk to me. It always feels like something important, worth the moment of disconnection, but, at a distance, I can see that I am often just scrolling listlessly and restlessly.

I have social-media blockers on all my devices, which worked well until I discovered you could switch them off easily. They invented a locked mode, I learned to delete the blocker app. Now, I download and delete my blockers multiple times a day, like an overeater hiding food from themselves and repeatedly opening the cupboard. I have been known to stare at my phone, after I’ve taken it down from the highest shelf where I’ve “hidden” it, and quote Brokeback Mountain: “I wish I knew how to quit you.” I am embarrassed by this (especially when a housemate catches me talking to a digital device like a cowboy), but I know I’m not alone.

You might not associate this endemic distraction with sloth, but, before there was sloth, there was acedia. Acedia (accidie) is both the Latin word we now translate as sloth and for many centuries its precursor. It’s not simple laziness but a richer, more capacious concept, difficult to translate. I also think it is endemic, the unnamed temptation of our times.

John Cassian, a monk writing in the early fifth century, described Brothers with acedia experiencing: “Bodily listlessness . . . as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast. . . Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.”

Listlessness, distraction, apathy, restlessness. A monk never called it this, but I recognise it most in my own life when I’m faffing. Failing to settle to anything, craving something, trying to sate a snackishness I’m only semi-conscious of. Time feels either baggy or tight. The opposite of flow.

Etymologically the Latin word comes via Greek, and joins the negative a “without” to kedos meaning “care”. Carelessness doesn’t quite cover it though. The list in listless comes not from to-do lists but the Middle English liste, meaning pleasure, joy, or delight. So, joylessness is in there, too. The monks who first coined acedia called it the “noonday demon”, the post-lunch slump when all the focus and energy of the morning has worn off. It wasn’t originally seen as a sin in itself, more a state of mind to be avoided. Chaucer, in gloriously juicy Middle English, said it “for-sloweth and forsluggeth” anyone attempting to act.

Mid-January, as half the country resignedly gives up on their resolutions, might be peak acedia season. Boredom is a key component, both an unwillingness and inability to attend to what is important. John of the Cross thought it was part of the “dark night of the soul”, less glamorous but no less dangerous than despair.

Non-monastic thinkers have recognised acedia. Aldous Huxley blamed the Romantics for its becoming a fashionable pose for aspiring poets and artists. He despaired that in his time (as in ours), many creatives and intellectuals put on acedia like clothes, adopting ennui, cynicism, and languor as part of their personal brand:

“The sense of universal futility, the feelings of boredom and despair, with the complementary desire to be ‘anywhere, anywhere out of the world,’ or at least out of the place in which one happens at the moment to be, have been the inspiration of poetry and the novel for century [sic] and more.”

Acedia leaves me pinging around like a pinball, a “forslug­gish” one sometimes, but also like the monk popping restlessly in and out of her cell hoping for a visitor, or a notification. Too many of my days are lived in this scattered state. Acedia neuters my ability to do good in the world, or even just properly enjoy it.

I don’t want to be a pinball. I want to be a plant.


WITH a concept this broad, there isn’t one opposite, but I’ve come to believe that the antonym of acedia is attention. The etymological root of attention is stretching toward something, moving intentionally closer. Ideally, I would decide carefully what warrants my attention, what people, ideas, objects, or projects have sufficient meaning and value for me to spend a part of my fleeting life attending to them. I would stretch towards those things that will help me be kinder, freer, more just. Things that bring me genuine joy. Primarily, for me, people and relationships, but also meaningful work, meaningful play, beauty, real rest.

We all know that we are living in what has been termed the attention economy. It feels more like the acediac economy. No matter how many articles I’ve read about how tech companies manipulate us with dopamine hits, and our Pavlovian response to notifications (articles I’ve found on social media), it’s easy not to see the full danger of it. We are so seduced by the convenience and gloss and repeated tiny emotional rewards for compliance that we don’t recognise the opportunity cost. How rapidly our lives are passing with our minds resting primarily on matters only pixel deep.

The philosopher and later Catholic martyr Thomas More wrote: “Many things know we that we seldom think on. And in the things of the soul, knowledge without remembrance little profiteth.”

In other words, the things I “know”, but fail to train my attention on, do me little good. I wanted to live primarily for relationships, but the war on my attention means that I am often failing, forgetting to remember what I know. When I stop to notice it, I feel actual rage. It is hard enough to live a good life, to do the work, to grow, without a context that is actively working against those things.

I have to remind myself that learning to attend to what is important has always been a part of wisdom paths, distraction always a hurdle to over­come. Monetising and mining our attention has accelerated, but isn’t brand new. Dorothy L. Sayers summarised the messaging of advertising in 1933 as: “Whatever you’re doing, stop it and do something else! Whatever you’re buying, pause and buy something different. Be hectored into health and prosperity! Never let up! Never go to sleep! Never be satisfied. If once you are satisfied, all our wheels will run down.”

Sayers’s exclamation marks help me recognise the artificial urgency, to feel in my body the way the messaging of our culture is fracturing my relationship to time. Go! Go! Go! Do! Do! Do! Shiny! New! Over here! Take your eyes off the people in front of you and keep moving. Don’t stretch steadily and intentionally towards the most important things, but ping around responsively, because this whole engine is running off your distracted, restless hustle.

My culture is telling me, in a million different ways, to never be satisfied.

I want to be satisfied.

I want to stop pinging around and put my roots down deep. I need to learn to draw nourishment from the gifts I have already received, the relationships in front of me. I am taking my time and my attention back.

It was only in my thirties that I began fully recognising the powerful resources my tradition offers in this quest. I have come to the conclusion that training attention and struc­turing time are the hidden genius of religions. Yes, they give ethical guidance and existential comfort, but the centuries-honed tools they offer are a pragmatic, applicable, and sane response to the madness of distraction and hurry.

The Rule of St Benedict, the urtext for monastic thought, implies that it is precisely a well-ordered rhythm of days that keeps distraction at bay. Acedia is presented as a disruption of rhythm, a bum note in the song of the hours. I love Abraham Joshua Heschel’s term for disordered time: “the screech of dissonant days”. I react badly to the idea of a schedule, but a rhythm sounds inviting. When I’m living in rhythm, time feels less like a quarry or an enemy and more like a dance partner.


MONKS ordered their 24 hours starting from the belief that in each day there is enough time — enough time for prayer, work, community, and solitude. We, of course, see echoes of this in productivity culture: colour-coding your Outlook calendar and constantly iterating your schedule to “find” more pockets of time. These are faint echoes though, because under the monastic approach was the assumption of abundance, not scarcity.

Time hacks can be useful, but too often the things we are repeatedly encouraged to find time and attention for are narrow: work (output) and health/appearance (input), the second implicitly framed as a way to keep servicing the first. Time is money, and money never sleeps. Time, like many things previously conceived of as gifts, is now a commodity, subject to the voracious logic of the market.

Monastic rhythms, often codified in individual communi­ties as a Rule of Life, protect time for a wider, wiser range of activities. Different orders have different rhythms, but they always include hard work that contributes to the community (monks are the opposite of the turn on, tune in, drop out communes of the sixties). Work, though, is kept in place as one important focus among others, with the life of the soul the lodestar. When it’s time for prayer, community, or hospi­tality, work stops.

A few years ago, I decided that if St Benedict was right then ordering my time is part of how I tend to my soul. I’ve been attempting to beat back my endemic acedia with a range of spiritual practices (you could call them spiritual technologies) that the Church has used for centuries, and to do it not in a burst of enthusiasm that I then lose a few weeks later, but over years.

Much to my annoyance, repetition seems to be the key. Our novelty-obsessed culture is allergic to repeti­tion, associating it with dullness and scarcity, but that is a problem. Research on neuroplasticity and the power of habit only confirms what religions have always taught — the repeated, committed choices we make day after day are the sum of who we become. This means our own Rule of Life, the way we structure our time (whether by accident or design), is one of the most important choices we can make to influence what people will say about us at our funeral.

All these practices, as I learn to use them properly and regularly, feel like a trellis. They are helping me to train my attention on the connected relationships that I say I want to define my life. I feel saner, calmer, more focused. Spiritually alive.


This is an extract from Fully Alive: Tending to the soul in turbulent times by Elizabeth Oldfield, published on 23 May by Hodder & Stoughton at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.19); 978-1-3998-1076-0 (Books, 17 May).

Listen to an interview with Elizabeth Oldfield on the Church Times Podcast.

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