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Giving In To Distraction

I have had an uneasy relationship with distraction. As much as I've enjoyed the opportunity to be pulled away from something hard or boring, I've always felt self-indulgent taking advantage of the chance to escape. When I was an introverted kid, and the daughter of a woman who needed more attention than I could muster, becoming engrossed in what ever was right in front of me was a simple way to look busy and dodge my mother's dramas. Back then, these distractions took the form of Nancy Drew mysteries, hitting tennis balls against the garage door, and taking my dog Tony for a walk. And they worked well at making me feel the kind of invisibility I needed when I just wanted to disappear.

As a young adult, diversions came in handy when I was anxious or worried about work I should be doing. If I could distract myself long enough, I didn’t have to be concerned about all the things I should be doing. Distractions also helped to keep me from fretting about what I really wanted to be doing in my life or whether or not I was saving enough money. This is where bad TV, less-than-perfect relationships, and chardonnay came in. A good combo of those three generally kept me from having to think much about anything very serious.

My pendulum is swinging the other way, and I find myself learning to be distracted in a good way.

Even later in my life, happily married and ensconced in a good career, I have relied on whatever distractions were in front of me to keep me from really having to pay attention if I didn’t want to. Getting lost in the rabbit hole of my cell phone has kept me from having to be a fully present grown-up when I've been too tired or too anxious to do it. Sometimes I’ve just liked being diverted from my own busy brain and all of the machinations I could create over nothing. Regardless of the distraction, though, I've always felt a little guilty indulging myself in it. But now, almost suddenly, I the idea of distraction has taken on a new meaning for me.

I thought of this a few days ago when I was on my exercise bike, sweating away while one of the most enthusiastic human beings I have ever seen was there on the iFit screen in front of me, urging me on. She wanted me to see the workout as more than an effort to lose actual weight, but as a way to “let go of the weight of things that have been holding me back.” I winced a little at the metaphor, but figured this was probably really useful to young people who are striving for huge, life-changing moments. I felt this even more when she pushed us to aim for the thing we’ve always dreamed of and to not let our eyes off that goal. “Don’t let yourself get distracted,” she shouted.

At 70, I realize that my eyes have been on a goal for as long as I can remember. I haven’t set the world on fire, but I’ve worked as a writer and in education since I was in my late 20s. Being distracted from that work and its trappings was something I had to reserve mostly for vacation or weekends when I didn’t have catch-up work to do. For more than 35 years, I was almost totally focused on work goals—even to the point of occasionally being a fairly removed friend and a frequently “too busy” partner. In short, I never had much balance in my life while I was working. Now, in my second retirement, my pendulum is swinging the other way, and I find myself learning to be distracted in a good way.

Rather than taking a quick glance at the sunrise or sunset, I’m remembering that I’m not on a schedule and that I can take as long as I like to watch the rosy sky turn blue. I can let anything distract me if I want it to, even though it's hard to believe there isn't something else I should be doing. I felt that way when I first became a dean after teaching for more than 20 years, too. Having spent so many nights and weekends grading papers, it never occurred to me that I could just lie on the couch and read a book when I was at home.

These days, I find myself redefining distraction. If something catches my eye or my ear or my soul, I’m trying to see it as a direction I want to turn toward rather than something that's keeping me from "more important work." I have nothing but time right now and I’d love to go with this feeling of just relaxing about it and seeing where it takes me. Distraction feels like discovery these days, and I'm practicing giving myself permission to explore what appears in front of me.


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