Friday, May 31, 2013

Cultivating the Person

SCRIPTURE: Psalm 27:4
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 31 May 2013

"One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple." (Ps 27:4)

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to listen to one of my favourite professors on spirituality, Dr Susan Phillips speak on the topic: "Spirituality of Cultivation: A Response to Disorders of Attention & Attachment." I got to meet several people at Regent College as well. I missed the place. For 90 minutes, I was enthralled by the whole atmosphere, with Phillips leading the way through her reflections on the need to cultivate an attentiveness to God, amid a complex culture of distractions. The idea is nothing really new, though the context continues to be more and more challenging. She talks about the linkage between social structures and psychiatric research which point out the rising challenges of disorders and inattentiveness in many people. In one study, watching broadcasting networks like television creates a "culture of expectation." For instance, it was found that in China, children who watch TV the most are least attentive to real life. Another report in America talks about the poor social skills that arise out of frequent TV watching.

"Studies show that too much television viewing can have adverse affects, such as more violent and aggressive behavior, poor school performance, obesity, early sexual activity, and drug or alcohol use. Children aren't engaging in the activities they need to help them develop their bodies and brains when they watch television." (University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Family Issues Facts, Bulletin 4100, p1)

A) Short, Quick, and Inattentive Culture

We live in a short-term, quick-tempered, and increasingly inattentive culture. Quick fix solutions are becoming the norm. Think of aspirin to give quick relief for headaches. I cannot help but notice that in technology, people are getting easily bored at a quickening pace. Having being wowed by the latest-and-greatest for so long, people tend to rise in expectations only to be let down when the best gadgets out there fail to rise up to such expectations. That is one reason why the powerful Apple company is in trouble. Having outdone itself through the iPad success and the iPhone phenomenon, the company is hard-pressed to come up with another industry shaping device. Without the iconic Steve Jobs to lead the way, the current CEO is increasingly on a hot seat.

One of the things that Phillips mentioned is the need to replace "communication theories" with tend to be adopted as magical solutions. Communication theories is like broadcast networks that diminish attention under the pretext of getting things done efficiently and quickly. In such a mode, there is hardly any incentive to develop any cultivation at all, let alone listening, contemplating, and praying. As long as one can get things done quickly, not having to lift a finger at all, or to exercise one's brains, people are happy and contented. Unfortunately, the side effects become harmful over the long term. Effects such as attention deficit, inattentiveness and inability to develop meaningful social relationships. One of the things that Phillips mentioned was the rise of organizations that thrive with people who have problems with attention span. Internet corporations are one glaring example. Knowing that the entrepreneurial spirit cannot be locked into a 9 to 5 time schedule, companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet titans are providing their employees the best possible climate for them to develop and innovate ideas. It is not surprising to find individuals with short attention spans able to work well in such an environment.
  • Developers are free to test, introduce, modify, adapt, even abandon ideas at any time. 
  • Employees are not bound by work hours, meaning they can get up in the middle of the night the moment they have an idea, and start innovating straightaway
  • Employees have the means to work from anywhere, anytime, and anyhow. With wireless technology and the communications gadgets, people are free to connect to the Internet at anytime, even from the bathroom. 
The rise of social media like Twitter is a prime example of living a world of snippets and short attention spans. No longer required to write long essays with many words, Twitter allows (even restricts) users from writing too much. There is a 140 characters limitation in each Tweet.  Even long URLs (or website addresses) can be abbreviated with shortened addresses.

B) The Human Side Effect

As a result, as technology becomes more and more advanced, with greater channels to connect with one another strangely, more people are becoming disconnected, fragmented, and utterly lonely. In one study, it was said that heavy users of Facebook tend to be easily depressed. More disconcerting is the way people are running around in circles, creating an environment that resembles a circus. Just consider how some of these terms have been introduced into the modern language usage:
  • We "juggle" our time (remember the circus clown who juggles multiple balls in the air?)
  • We "swing" from place to place; (remember the trapeze entertainer?)
  • We try to strike a "balance" (note how circus performers balance themselves on the line?)
  • The software is the "magic." (Remember magic shows in the circus?)
The last statement is quite popular when I work with software professionals who have absolute faith in the programs and systems that they have developed. More importantly, Phillips has described a more serious condition: Performer-Spectator mentality.

This reminds me of the age-old statement by Shakespeare: "All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts,"

When we reduce our world to mere performance and spectators, there is hardly any human connection. There is no personal interactions. People come together with entertainment in mind. One provides the entertainment, while the others receive it. The cycle then repeats itself. In the recent decade, Phillips quote one research that estimates a 246% increase in inattentiveness in children; up to 30% increase in loneliness; and the rise of attractiveness of Eastern spiritualism to counter these effects.

C) Cultivating Attentiveness

How then do we cultivate attentiveness? Phillips suggests three things: Love, Truth, and Discipline. She suggests that we adopt "cultivation theory" where she talks about it being a "stalagmite theory" where the limestone of effects (attentiveness) get accumulated over time. All of these three can be provided in the practice of Christian spirituality.

As I think about the implications, I like to stay attentive to the psalm above about "one thing." Like Kierkergaard's famous work: "Purity of heart is to will one thing," the psalmist is clear about what he wants. He wants God. He does not just want to be in a place. He wants to be with the person of God. What makes the house of God special is not the house, but God who is in the house.

Like the use of the Presidential plane "Air Force One." Any plane can be "Air Force One," when the President of the United States is in it. The type of plane does not matter. Even the label of the plane outside does not determine the Presidential plane. It is the President's presence that makes all the difference.

The same thing is with heaven. Heaven is not simply a place. It is where God lives. The Psalmist wants to be where God is. He wants to be there all the days of his life. He wants to be there in perpetual worship, praise, and singing, seeking, and seeing God. For he knows that there is beauty to be appreciated. There is love. There is glory. There is safety.

Our modern lifestyle has become too distracting for our own good. In trying to upend one another, companies are stumbling over one another to come up with the latest and the greatest to win the customer. In trying to better their friends, consumers too are losing attention to the latest at a quickening pace. In the process, they lose themselves and their identity. They get detached when what they need is to be attached. They get distracted when what they need is attention. They crave belonging, but at the same time, their restless hearts prevent them from being contented. Here is an exercise I like to teach with regards to building attentiveness. Think of these two words: "Thank You."

Concentrate your thoughts and your mind on being grateful. Be thankful about your family, no matter the ups and downs. Be thankful about your job. Be thankful about your place in society. Be thankful for your history. Just be thankful. Let the gratefulness in you, relax the muscles, and feel your stresses of life go away.

The second is this. Direct your gratitude to the Giver of all things, Judge of all men, Maker of heaven and earth. He alone deserves to be thanked. Henry Ward Beecher once said: "The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings!" Cultivate this gratitude, and you will sense how your life gets changed by God from the inside out. Today is not just another day. It is a day to give thanks. Learn from Brother David Steindahl in this classic video on gratitude.

Say "Thank You, my Lord and my God." That may very well be the best prayer to God this week, and every week.

THOUGHT: "Let us thank God heartily as often as we pray that we have His Spirit in us to teach us to pray. Thanksgiving will draw our hearts out to God and keep us engaged with Him; it will take our attention from ourselves and give the Spirit room in our hearts." (Andrew Murray)


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