Shabbat: Our tool for attention literacy

by Beth Kissileff (Pittsburgh, PA)

At my book group last night, one of the members told us that she had to fire a student working in her lab the next day. It was not a task she relished, but he was not performing his assigned tasks. Instead of following directions, he was checking his email or texting on his smartphone.

“I don’t understand it. He has a degree in molecular biology. He’s not stupid. But he just does not know how to pay attention. I can’t have someone like that working for me,” she explained.

We were regaled with other tales of people oblivious to those around them— a job candidate who spent the whole time checking his email while he was being given a tour of his new potential workplace and taken to lunch (guess who did not get that job), and a panel where one of the three people on the panel, speaking to a large group, had his laptop open, typing, during the time he was supposed to be a panelist and engage with an audience.

Where has our collective attention gone? How can we learn to exert some degree of control over these devices that are everywhere in our lives?

There is a simple and ancient low-tech answer: Shabbat.

Shabbat is a time to simply exist in the world, not to engage in any of the 39 rabbinically described forms of work that make a mark on the world, but to appreciate and accept what is. The enforced rest of a traditional Sabbath, with a break from the electronic distraction of emails and iPhones, creates an ability to focus and notice the world from a sensory perspective in real rather than in virtual time. It helps with endurance because even if a week is crazy, you know there will be a day off to look forward to. A stoppage of time, a cessation from work. In my Shabbat world, people take time to prepare special food, to sit and eat meals with each other, to be nicer than during the rushed work week, to converse, interact, and learn a bit of Jewish text.

Shabbat is a way to gain what writer Howard Rheingold calls “attention literacy.” The ability NOT to multitask (which has been shown by all measures to fail horribly at getting the requisite tasks done because all are done more slowly and less well when one’s attention is focused on multiple variables) will soon become a rare and sought after ability. Employers will flock for potential employees who are able to master the self-control to put down their devices and pay attention. Those of us able to turn off and unplug will be in the minority in the 21st century and valuable to both ourselves for our unusual abilities to focus, as well as to employers for our unusual skills.

The other advantage of turning off electronics for 25 hours is that it allows us to be present to those in our physical orbit. I worry about how my children are learning (or, rather, not learning) to interact with others. Although my daughter can spend the whole day texting, I don’t know whether this deepens her relationships and adds to her friendships. When complaining about this to a psychiatrist friend with a daughter the same age, she said that teens are “connected but at arm’s length.” That is it exactly, the distance that a text or an email puts between people. It is not the same as a letter with the physical imprint of another.

I spent hours as a teen swooning over letters from boys, felt a thrill to see my name written by him. Hearing someone’s voice directly on the phone is a completely different process from the impersonal one of seeing pixels on a screen, whether on a laptop, iPad or cellphone. If you use no electronic devices for a day, Shabbat forces you to be in relationship with those around you. It is the only time during the week my family of five can be found in the same room, reading, together without risk of a phone to disturb us.

I have been riding a bicycle as my main form of transportation for the last few months. Recently, there was a problem with my bike’s brakes. I didn’t realize it at first, but, gradually, I noticed that no matter how hard I squeezed, the bike would not come to a complete stop. I finally knew that I absolutely had to get the bike fixed when I was going down a steep hill which had a well trafficked street at its base. I clutched the brakes and panicked, realizing I was still careening madly down the hill with no hope for stopping as I was getting closer and closer to the hectic intersection with its whizzing cars. I finally jumped off the bike, banging up my middle-aged knees, in order to get the bike to come to a stop.

I went to my local bike store the next day. When I rode down the hill with $73 of mechanical work on my bicycle, the experience was totally different. I was in control of the ride because I knew that I could stop when I wanted. The pressure of my hands on the brakes slowed me down, and I came to a complete stop, at will. I felt so relaxed and in complete control of every aspect of my trip because I knew that I could control my ride.

For me, this is the perfect metaphor for Shabbat. It’s a day that gives us control of our week knowing we can put some brakes on and stop all kinds of distractions and work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Shabbat allows me to stop and think so I can manage my to-do lists. Stopping clears away small things so I can focus on larger ones. That kind of attention literacy is something we all need.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013), and has received writing fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the Lilly Endowment. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in, Tablet, Shma, Zeek, the Jerusalem Report and Jerusalem Post, Moment Magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Review of Books, Hadassah Magazine,, and the News and Observer (Raleigh, NC). She uses her brakes in Pittsburgh, PA where she lives with her family.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

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