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Wonder: the Antidote to Distraction

My life was changed by someone asking, “how are you?”

A new friend placed his hand on my shoulder, his eyes pierced into mine like a loving laser beam, and he said a second time, “how are you, really?”

I’ve told this story hundreds of times. It’s central to my testimony.

But I realized recently I’ve been telling the story wrong. You see, my life changed afterward — on the car ride home from that ordinary encounter in the hot summer of 2008.

As I entered my car and turned on the A/C, my phone did not automatically connect. That dumb phone couldn’t, even if it tried. My mp3 player, still with legacy songs from Limewire, did not play through my speakers. There was no audio acclimatized to my taste. The radio might have been on – I don’t remember – but it certainly didn’t have a multi-million dollar AI algorithm catered to me. Probably just some Ne-Yo, Flo Rida, or Jason Mraz. Yeah, forgettable.

My mind didn’t wander, it wondered. I felt the weight of eternity.

I remember being both confused and absorbed, downcast yet somehow appreciating the sense of weakness. It was wonder – not music nor podcasts – that filled my soul. I thought life might be meaningless. I could tell my new friend, “I’m doing good,” but I was just a blade of grass soon to wither away. What is life? Why do I exist? How am I doing, really? These questions prodded me — my life didn’t have to be meaningless, did it? If only there was something, or Someone, bigger than myself to live for. I was filled with wonder at the smallness of self and the grandeur of God.

God was and is the meaning I was missing. My life was marked for more than, “I’m doing good.”

Distracted By Our Modern World

Tech companies try to kidnap us with personally tailored digital candy. They don’t arrive in a white van without windows to tempt us but leverage the very device you’re using now. And there’s no audible, “want some candy?” just a little red dot on the screen awaiting your touch or the next song in a smart playlist sure to please.

I could only turn the simple words, “how are you” into something profound when I had time to reflect; when I wasn’t distracted.

M. Sarcasas, a deep thinker on society and technology, recently explained how our modern age inhibits wonder. He says, “wonder arises when the commonplace becomes suddenly perplexing or the ordinary takes on an extraordinary quality.” The combination of curated entertainment, digitally-generated visual stimuli, and our tech-taught habit of skimming all discourage wonder.

But this isn’t simply a fourteen-year-old story concerning the rise of digital distraction. Charles Taylor describes the story of modernity (the last 300-400 years) as moving away from an enchanted world to one where at default we assume the material world is all there is. Our modern age teaches us to ignore life’s big questions; we learn how the world works and what it is made of instead of why we are here or who we live for.

Technology and modernity impede wonder. But distraction preceded both.

Distracted Because Of Sin

God is not limited by technology. He continues to use it for his glory. Rather, we distract ourselves with technology from what would be readily accessible to us otherwise.

As Blaise Pascal famously said, “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

The Apostle Paul says that since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen. However, we have exchanged this truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

We suppress our created world. We do not sit with awe at the complexity of the human body, or at the beauty of the squirrel as it dances up the tree, or at the wildness of even existing at all.

The solution to our distraction is not simply mustering up the willpower to be distracted less but to wonder more.

What Wonder Looks Like

Wonder is instrumental to Christian living. It is the fear of God – the love of God – the resounding praise for his holiness coupled with his nearness. Wonder is there in repentance, that feeling of surprise mixed with admiration as we recognize the sin we have committed and then realize afresh that Christ died even for that, too.

The psalmist stirred up his wonder when he prayed, “Bless the Lord, oh my soul,” (103:1), and recounted: God’s blessings (103:2-5), God’s character and forgiveness of sin (103:6-13), his own frailty as withering grass (103:14-16), and how God will be praised through all things (103:17-22).

Psalm 103 models wonder through the spiritual benefits provided by God. Psalm 104 models wonder through the material benefits provided by God.

In the latter, the psalmist wonders at God’s involvement in: the vastness of light in the sky, wind, fire, earth, oceans, mountains, thunder, rain, rivers, mudslides, beasts, donkeys, singing birds, bread, and wine. And that’s only the first half of the psalm!

There are a million ways to wonder. Go on walks. Limit your screen time. Pursue uncomfortable questions. Pray. Look people in the eye as my friend did to me; see their humanity. Go to every funeral you’re invited to. Meditate on Scripture. Travel in silence. Serve the materially poor. Sabbath. Cry. Look. Look at the birds (Matt. 6:26). Look at the ant (Prov. 6:6). Look at things. Learn and wonder at the God of All Things. [1]

Prioritize Wonder

How many life-changing moments have you missed because you’ve suppressed the truth of God? How many experiences of life have died due to digital addiction? How much good are you choosing, through your repeated habits, to be distracted from?

Neil Postman, in writing about television news back in 1985, said we are Amusing Ourselves to Death. In our age of dopamine-fueled AI algorithms and humanity-deprived phones, we are now distracting ourselves to death.

Our death is not through a thousand cuts but through tens of thousands of swipes, taps, and clicks.

Or we can choose life. Choose to wonder.



[1] See God of All Things by Andrew Wilson