Filling the Empty Space With Distraction

Life in the modern age is one that is full of activity. It seems that every moment of our waking lives can be accounted for in some manner of work, chore, or distraction. Every space in time is occupied by something, with little to no room for pause. We can duly expect our work and / or school weeks to be packed with laden schedules- but how many of us start our week on Monday wishing we had a weekend to recover from the weekend? We are constantly on the go, even when we should otherwise be at rest. Accustomed to such busy-ness, it is small wonder that so many of us tend to be ill at ease, restless, or bored when some bit of down-time does in fact manage to crowbar its way into our agendas. There’s a creeping sense of emptiness that brings about a state of mental discomfort, one that presents a need to be filled. And with what do we fill that emptiness? Distraction.

Distraction becomes a balm on the mind to soothe a restless soul- it fills the cracks, the gaps, the emptiness….it gives us a temporary (and artificial) sense of wholeness, whether or not we are actually aware of it doing so on a conscious level. If we are constantly seeking to fill the empty moments with some manner of activity or distraction, we are playing into the hands of the enemy of our souls. This may seem to be a bit of an extreme claim, but it is true nonetheless. In filling every possible moment, we aren’t so much driving away a mundane sense of boredom or restlessness, but are in effect dulling our inherent sense of need and hunger for God and His mercy.  The enemy of our souls uses such situations to entangle us in the worldly, and to intoxicate us with the material so that we don’t actively seek the spiritual. We become so overindulged with distraction that our spiritual hunger and longing is artificially alleviated, and so we no longer seek true sustenance in God, in His Word, or in His Church… it’s analogous to filling up on junk food right before a proper meal (and so, no longer wanting or needing to eat that meal). But it doesn’t truly satisfy our need and so we are soon hungry again…we indulge in more junk or another distraction, instead of fulfilling that need with what will truly satiate it.

In our fallen existence, God allows for emptiness and longing- not so that we can be made to suffer or feel some manner of being punished or mentally / spiritually tortured, but so that we would realize our need for His presence and grace in our lives. God didn’t create us to be puppets, nor does He compel us against our will. Rather, He desires that we seek Him with our hearts and minds, fully and completely. Our longing for God draws us closer to Him. The emptiness we feel makes us aware of our connection to Him and our need draws us closer to Him (and so, we can be filled with His love and grace). Does this mean that we should exclude hobbies or exploring interests from our lives? No. Rather, we need simply to slow down a little (or in many cases, a lot), open up our daily agendas a bit, and allow for quiet, empty moments. These breaks allow us a bit of pause and reflection, and provide some “space” for us to not only feel our longing, but to truly understand that longing for what it is and so seek the right and true sustenance for it: God and His mercy.

Elder Macarius of Optina: A Saying and Some Thoughts…

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I wish I had come across this bit of wisdom many years ago, while I was drifting away from God and His holy Church…. It definitely applied to me, and in the course of man’s shared brokenness, I think it is true for many others as well. How many of us equate the love or presence of God or God’s healing / healing mercy with immediate consolation and feel-good vibes? How many of us mistake or have mistaken the lack of a sense of emotional comfort or a lack of being at ease within our hearts as the absence of God or the lack of “getting something fulfilling” out our faith, church, God, etc… “it just isn’t doing it for me”….

Perhaps it isn’t “doing it” for you- but that’s not for the absence of God or the seeming failings of the Church. Rather, it is because in our brokenness, you and I may be looking for an immediate emotional gratification or a bit of pleasant escape, instead of the real, deeper salvific healing that we should otherwise be seeking.  One may argue that if God’s Church were the hospital of the soul (a truth of which we are often reminded), shouldn’t we feel better, more joyful, more at peace, more……… in our distorted thinking, we not only fail to see things clearly and we mistake temporary happiness and a “feel good” moment for true, deep joy.. we mistake the consolation of our self for true spiritual healing and a bigger picture of seeking salvation and the ultimate union with God.

One point that many of us (yes, I’m admitting guilt here)  may have failed to consider in the grand scheme of things is a simple truth that no one promised us an easy, emotionally comfortable life. In our distorted thinking, we somehow think that our religious path should free us from the bitterness of the world, or the effects of its fallen nature -the pain, sorrow, disappointment, etc. But why are we so entitled? Did not Christ himself suffer in his humanity….did not / do not the countless martyrs of the past and today? Why would we then think we are so entitled to uninterrupted bliss? Our distorted thinking is at the very root of that. After all, our Lord himself tells us (Matthew 16:24), “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

Where are we to follow Him- to a picnic? …to a relaxing day of sunbathing by a beautiful, tropical sea? No. We follow Him into hardship, into suffering, into that which brings us through the morass of the world and into salvation….a far cry from a temporary, immediate, and artificial sense of joy, comfort, and the narrow perspective of a worldly consolation of spirit. In many western circles, suffering is all too often erroneously mistaken for God’s punishment or a withdrawal of His grace and blessing. But this is a gross departure from the teachings of the true Church which reminds us that suffering is not a punishment at all, but a way of overcoming that which afflicts us in this fallen world- we “crucify the flesh” in overcoming the passions that would sever us from God’s grace, threaten to keep us mired in our brokenness, and joined to that which separates us from Him. We need to resist the urge to gain the temporary consolations of the immediate, lest we forsake the eternal joys of our salvation and ultimate union with God.

The quoted scriptural passage was taken from the New King James Version ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Listening

I tend to be a bad listener. I want to fix things, and I have this inner need (apparently) to help, to give answers to questions when they are asked- after all, aren’t questions put forward to gain answers? Well, not always. Sometimes, people are merely expressing anguish or voicing frustration in the ‘asking’….they aren’t really looking for a proper response, but just want a listening ear other than their own to hear their words. This is something I understand, but can’t seem to put into practice with any great measure of success.

I would say that to be an effective listener is a bit of an art- but in all truth, it is really much more of a self-discipline than art. I find that it isn’t always easy to keep silent and simply listen. My inclination is to discuss and to offer advice. It takes a particular awareness on my part, a true state of watchfulness to keep my desire (to help or advise) in check. It’s a deliberate focus of the will to purely listen and be present for another, without giving in to the idea that somehow I need to be more than a listener, more than one to whom a friend, partner, or spouse can confide.

When we listen in attentive silence, we not only show the person in need that we care enough to be fully present for them, we also communicate peace in our silence. This peace can provide a healing comfort to those who are afflicted with cares, and can foster the presence of stillness and peace within their own unsettled hearts. This is far better than any advice-unasked-for or other manner of banter that interrupts another’s sharing of troubles or concerns. Certainly, if we are asked for our advice, we should give it- the key is to refrain from jumping at the chance to offer it, from blurting out the seeming ‘gems of wisdom’ and advice that well up within our minds. But more often than not, it really is enough to just be still, fully present, and attentively listen.

For me, having that attentive ear to which I can unload is one of the blessings of the Mystery of Confession. While so many may look upon Confession as being undertaken merely out of a sense of guilt or only to seek forgiveness of sinful deeds, it is in fact one of the many medicinal cures offered by the very “hospital for the soul” (the Church of Christ) for the broken heart and afflicted spirit. We can confide our sins to our Father Confessor, unloading the burdens that weigh heavily upon us and keep us chained to our anxieties and frustrations. And in so doing, we are not only sharing them to the Confessor, but through him to the most perfect of listeners: Jesus Christ, Himself.

It goes without saying that Christ is ever present and ever attentive to our needs. In some small way, we follow his example by lending an ear, by offering ourselves in being present and attentive for another. None of us are as perfect as Christ, but as devout Christians, we do strive to be Christ-like in our words and deeds -in spite of our many failings and in spite of just how far from that goal we fall. But try we must, no matter how imperfect our earnest efforts may be. I am far from being Christ-like, and fail at the practice more than I succeed. I’m also a bad listener, as I’ve already mentioned….but as I strive to live more by Jesus Christ’s example, I’m also striving to be a better listener.

Disappointment

Life is full of disappointments. Some, we readily shrug off and forget. Others seem to linger, or even to take deep and firm root within our hearts. In one regard, this is only natural- we look back on our lives and smile at the moments and choices that resulted in satisfactions, but we also regret those certain decisions we’ve made or perhaps had failed to make. With this latter especially, we may set our minds to wondering about “what might have been”, “if only…..” and other such ponderings that leave us mired in our disappointment(s) and longing for an imaginary present (stemming from an imaginary past)- This is particularly true when things aren’t going quite to our plans or in line with our efforts, or when we’ve hit a notably rough patch of road on the going.

The real problem isn’t being disappointed. Rather, it is in our lingering or dwelling upon our disappointments where the problem lies. When we dwell on the fantasies of “what might have been, if only……” or we concentrate so much of our time and emotional energy on the situation /  person / thing of disappointment, we not only lose the moment which God has given us (and one, I may add, we will never have again once it passes from the present), but we lose our sense of peace. We lose any manifestation of the inner stillness with which we are blessed when we are otherwise concentrated on  regrets. We miss out on the real beauty of the lives which God has given us, and we lose touch with the mere joy of living. Granted, it doesn’t mean that we are always going to be leaping and dancing, laughing, and full of smiles as in some dreamy, utopian sort of “heaven on earth”. Instead, the joy we have within is a gift of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that allows us the strength of spirit to accept the challenges, difficulties, and even pain that will come our way in this fallen world. It allows us to experience these things, and have the conviction to move through them in faith, fully trusting in God’s mercy.

The enemy of our souls would love nothing more than for us to lose our focus on God, to disconnect from the knowledge and trust of his mercy, to lose sight of the greater goal for that which occupies the immediate. Every bump in the road is a chance to become misled into that dim forest of despondency, wandering among the underbrush of our disappointments, which tear at our clothes and flesh like the sharp thorns of tangled briars. Life is all too short and it is easy to waste what little moments we are afforded in clinging to regrets. We must remain watchful and focused, giving but a fleeting notice to a moment of disappointment or regret- these moments will come and will naturally catch our attention. However, we must not tarry there, but instead engage our will by the grace and mercy of God to let such moments go. Otherwise, we blindly fall into the enemy’s trap, and are led astray in the bleakness of our bitter thoughts. We are then made more vulnerable to his urgings, to be more easily turned from the love and grace of God. In this, we are robbed of our joy, and kept from the wholeness of heart and mind that keeps us on the path to salvation.