It is difficult to be an attentive member of society these days without feeling the necessity to track events in the world continuously. Every day appears to reveal a new threat to our world. Every news feed seems to report an event of deep importance. But such reports are quickly followed by another, equally important, wiping away attention to the prior. What was the most important fact to absorb one day is replaced by another.
This thought can be combined with new theories of why humans perceive that time is passing more quickly as they age. That research asserts that as we age we gradually reduce our attention to each passing second of our life. This leads to a sensation that time is passing more quickly.
Finally, many of us experience life only through repeated Zoom calls these days. It’s remarkable how many of the calls contain a reference “It’s seems like decades have passed since we talked,” often remembering a meeting only days earlier.
In short, time seems to be perceived as a function of the rate of stimuli absorbed.
Further, the current world requires that we all make decisions quickly in order to assure that we adapt to changed circumstances. These are reactive decisions. We receive an external stimulus; we try to understand it; we assess the impact of the event on our endeavors; we make decisions. Indeed, those who ignore the events often lose their ability to fulfill their mission. They have not reacted fast enough.
However, what might be lost at this time is the “slow” — the focus on a single thought or, perhaps, absolutely no thought at all. The time to form the cognitive connections of the new fact to all the key values and intentions of one’s life. Moments to assess the importance of an event before making a decision.
Daniel Kahneman wrote a popular summary of his research, Thinking, Fast and Slow, some years ago, which noted how heuristic-based decision-making works well for most decisions we make. We take short cuts in thinking; we make comparisons to past decisions in the same domain; we choose what others seem to be choosing; we overweight superficial features of an option. All of these cognitive strategies allow us to make fast decisions, thousands of them each day. Such a strategy works well, until it doesn’t work. It especially doesn’t work on complicated matters that have multiple facets of attributes.
The Ignatian notion of discernment forces attention on what decision choice brings one closer to God, what brings one closer to one’s true, authentic self. There is little in the paradigm of discernment that is quick. Ignatius himself laid out 22 features of the process. A part of this process is deep reflection, an interior dialogue about the best option moving forward – careful, slow thought seeking the best way forward.
Of course, any attempt at reflection and discernment requires some quietude. Eliminating distractions common to busy minds is a crucial step. Slowing down. Clearing out the concerns of the moment. Calm attention and questioning of deep values and long term goals.
Increasingly, it seems clear that such deliberation requires detachment, dropping off the grid for a bit. Trying it as an experiment clearly brings a feeling of better mental health. But it also brings a sense of missing potentially important knowledge. We miss out on the thousands of new stimuli that have occurred in the moments off the grid.
The true skill we need to nurture at this time is not necessarily decisions based on a continuous, fast moving set of stimuli, but identification of which stimuli form a pattern that deserves careful, slow, deliberate discernment. We shouldn’t let slow die.