Victor Frankl, world-famous psychologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, toured America in the mid 60’s lecturing about his method of psychotherapy, which he named logotherapy. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, and he used his experience in the concentration camps to reflect on what the difference between those who flourish under the difficulties of life and those who crumble under its pressures. What he he found was those who flourish have meaning in their lives. Those who had lost everything but survived in the concentration camps, some even going on to lead profoundly deep and meaningful lives, had found meaning that drove them to continue on even amidst some of the worst conditions we can conceive of. And through this he found that those afflicted with various mental and spiritual ailments could be treated by helping them find meaning in their lives. But he had a dark warning for America during his tour. He predicted a massive deterioration of mental health in Americans due to our focus strictly on productivity, efficiency and utility.
Studies have shown that this prediction has come to pass. Americans are less mentally and spiritually healthy and devoid (by and large) of a deeper sense of meaning. Pair that with the modern age of distraction, which allows us to dwell, numbed, in this reality and continue to go about our daily lives numbed to our state of emotional and spiritual trauma. God speaks meaning into our lives, moves us towards meaning, but we can ignore it so easily. And worse, we often choose to ignore His voice, opting instead for the satisfaction of a few minutes (okay, 45 minutes) of turning our minds off and scrolling through our Reddit feed in search of the next GIF we can forward to our friends. Meanwhile under the surface our hearts are boiling over with desire for more and we become enveloped in a fidgety anxiety that sends us to Amazon to buy the next great self-help book about how we can become more productive or lead the life that we’ve always wanted to lead. We work harder so we can have a greater impact on the world and find our meaning that way. And God sits by, like Lucy in the Peanut’s comics, in his one cent booth willing to give us everything these books and this work promise but ultimately can’t deliver on.
Okay, so it’s bleak, but let’s not panic or wrack ourselves in anxious turmoil any longer. Let's all just take it down and notch, pour a glass of our favorite earthy red or a delightfully nutty brown ale, dim the lights and flip on a little Mahler. The world would be a better place if we all took this advice (at least I know my world would be). I'm not suggesting that we join the Catholic finer things club, but that we steep ourselves in beauty and goodness by guarding our hearts with holy leisure and finding silence in that leisure to experience God in the transcendental realm of truth, beauty and goodness.
Our desire as human beings is true communion with the transcendent God, so we're bored and desperate precisely because we live in this efficient, productive world of "total work". We often live much more in touch with our earthly duties than our heavenly ones, and our hearts cry out for something more meaningful. We're engineered for beauty, not just to consume it but to retain it, absorb it and make it a part of us. So despite the bleak outlook we have of the "technological age of distraction", we have to remember we have the stamp of our Creator indelibly marking our souls and predisposing us to move above and beyond the small field of vision afforded us the by the blue light of our iPhone screens.
Our lives are efficient and productive but in our structure, tidied and finely-tuned schedules need an infusion of something more mysterious and breath-taking, something that introduces us in a finite way to the infiniteness of God.
Our attention span is the start to that good life of communion with the infinite God. Take for instance one of the more noisy distractions: the modern pop song. The average pop tune averages around three minutes. If we see an eight-minute or more song approaching in our Spotify queue, we're more likely to switch it back to the hooky pop number so that we can look forward to the variety of ten shorter songs rather than enter into the progression of one longer one. We have a lack of concentration. Maria Montessori (look her up as I don't have space here to lay out this incredible woman's biography and philosophy) revolutionized education when she introduced practical work into her classrooms. Her reason was simple: concentration yields contemplation. Children will grow their ability to contemplate the face of God in prayer if they can concentrate on a task for a long period of time. It's true for children and it's true for adults. The more capacity we have to concentrate and stick with something the more we grow our capacity to sit in the all-too-uncomfortable silence of prayer and the more we can move past the mundane aspects of the sacraments and enter more deeply into them.
There's also something miraculous about the silence of good classical music or really any great art. It’s so beyond our humanity in a weird way that’s difficult to describe. I remember multiple times rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem in college where I literally shook my head staring at the notes on the page. How could anyone come up with this? Great art is a small window into the immensity of God, but it’s not an easy thing to enter into.
Symphonies have this way of refusing to appeal to the modern desire for immediate gratification that scientifically verified hooks woven into the hits churned out by pop stars and their producers provide. But in a really mysterious way, the grandeur and beauty of the great symphonies envelop and even overwhelm the listener. Even if you don't understand classical music, it's easy, if you pay attention, to be taken up in the music. It's almost like the music was made to spark the imagination of the listener. There isn't a need for writers and cinematographers to interfere in the stories going through the minds and hearts of the general public. Composers just supply the soundtrack.
And all of this sounds very romantic and idealized, and in a way I guess it is, but the introduction to a real interior life can be found hidden away in the back of your public library’s CD shelves or in the unsearched "classical" genre on whatever music app you prefer. If we simply dim the lights, light an incredible-smelling candle (I'm unashamed in my loved for scented candles) and flip on Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, we are allowing transcendental goodness to enter into our hearts and lives, cultivating good soil for the God to sow His word and grace into.