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I Learned It By Watching You!”

It felt like we were acting out that famous anti-drug-use commercial from the 80s. 

You know the one.

Father confronts son with the box of paraphernalia that Mom discovered under the boy’s bed. He demands to know how his son started using drugs: “Where did you get it? Answer me! Who taught you how to do this stuff?!”

The boy looks up at his dad, earnest and upset: “You! I learned it by watching you!”

My wife and I had decided we needed to have a corrective talk with our kids. As they slogged through final exams, finished the school year, and eased into the relaxed schedule of summer break, we’d both noticed that the amount of time they spent glued to their mobile devices was creeping upward. It was the first thing they’d reach for in the morning, and the way they’d finish each day. We determined we’d try to gently curb that troubling trend.

But as soon as we shared our concern around the dinner table, one of them shot back, “Well, if you’re going to reduce our screen time, you should reduce yours, too. You’re on your screens all the time.” 

At first, I felt good about the parental pronouncements with which I countered that objection: “Your mother and I know best. “Don’t make excuses”. But, that night, I noticed that, while I was sitting on the couch watching a Netflix show, I had managed to simultaneously be operating both my laptop and my phone, answering emails while keeping one eye on the Phillies score.

“I learned it by watching you!”


“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” was the title of an article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic a while ago. Carr narrates the experience of noticing his eroding capacity to read a long piece of prose in a sitting, stay interested in a novel, or make it to the end of a book. He goes on to survey research being done on the effect of the internet on our attention spans. The internet, he says, is a mixed blessing — all that info available! And yet, it’s changed the way our brains function, diminishing our ability to attend deeply to anything. Carr went on to expound further on his findings in a Pulitzer-nominated book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He wrote,“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. . .Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Ours is a distracted age. As T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “Burnt Norton,” in his masterful Four Quartets, we live

“Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.”

“Distracted from distraction by distraction” — and Eliot wrote that nearly a century before the advent of Facebook, X, Instagram, or Tik Tok!

Paying Attention

As I think about the dangers of the perpetual distraction I drift into, what worries me most is not the prospect that it might take me longer to digest a long-form New Yorker profile, or even that my bad screen habits might rub off on my kids -it’s that my capacity to attend to God may atrophy. 

Frederick Buechner, observed that one of the most basic ways we love another — whether another person, or God — is by paying attention to that person. In his disarming way, Buechner stated, 

I don’t know what it means to love God. . .but I think one of the things it means is, just as in the case of loving anybody else, you stop and watch and wait. Listen for God, stop and watch and wait for him. To love God means to pay attention, to be mindful, to be open to the possibility that God is with you in ways that, unless you have your eyes open, you may never glimpse. He speaks words that, unless you have your ears open, you may never hear.

So, this summer, I want to pay deeper attention. I’m doing some things to restrict the amount of time and space I give to screens, phones, social media. But mostly, I’m trying to deepen my capacity to pay attention to God — in the day unfolding all around me, in the features and faces of the other human souls with whom I make contact, and especially in the holy words of Scripture. 

For the last couple months, I’ve been praying the cadence of daily Psalm prayer from Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation. The other morning, Psalm 40 was the prayer for the day. In it, the psalmist offers themself to God in responsive attention, rejoicing that “God’s Word entered my life, became part of my very being.”

That’s what I hope, in a time where we’re distracted from distraction by distraction, we grow into people who attend so deeply to Father, Son, and Spirit that the words of God and the life of God come to reside in the depths of who we are.

Jared Ayers

Jared Ayers serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to this, he founded and served as the senior pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary & the Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 16 years, and have been graced with two sons and a daughter.


  • Ken Agema says:

    Thank you for this. I am very concerned about our grandchildren and beyond. I cherish growing up in a time where our social media came from a book or a newspaper.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    It is both confirming and scary to hear others say the same thing I have noticed about myself: the inability to stick to a complex or long read. Trying to skip to the end. At first you tell yourself it’s age, but then the realization slowly dawns that it is the gratifictaion of instant news and information, with a few games thrown in, that has somehow altered our brain waves. Thanks for the confirming wake up call.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    ” By paying attention!”
    Disarming but powerful!
    I would like a reference for that Buechner quote.
    Thank you.

    • Jared ayers says:

      Those lectures were given at Laity Lodge and later published in a book called “The Remarkable Ordinary,” I believe…

  • Steve Wykstra says:

    Great piece! Thanks!

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