My attention span is waning. I’ve noted it for the past couple of years: No longer can I sit for hours with a single book before me—barely recognizable is my teenage self who marathoned through Harry Potter volumes the day they arrived at my door—and the convenient packaging of twenty-five minute episodes of my favorite TV-shows has so shaped me that even sitting through a two-hour-long movie is at times difficult. I’ve no doubt as to the cause of my attention shortage, though. The recurring itch to check phone, e-mail, and social media as I attempt to work through any text of depth or any movie of richness reminds me again and again that my ability to focus was exchanged over time for the instant gratifications of the alerts and messages my electronic devices have brought me.
This lack of attention is not simply an unfortunate byproduct of changing times; it is also a serious spiritual malady. If, as philosopher Simone Weil put it memorably, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” then I am in danger of losing the very life-blood of both the active and contemplative facets of my life. Attention pulses at the heart of any serious human engagement, and so its absence can only signal a serious moral breakdown between persons. We have all experienced this break-down: the attempt to communicate with the person before us only to have that encounter spoiled by someone (often us!) checking a text message or letting a finger fall into the endless abyss of a scrolling news feed. Moreover, our growing lack of attention as a culture can only spell disaster for the natural world around us, as Pope Francis reminds us in the latest encyclical: We know so little of the world our exploitative practices are destroying because we rarely have time to see the world as it is, apart from our glowing screens. And most seriously, we can have no room for God in a life with little attention. Difficulties and distractions are nothing new in a life of prayer, but our current technological entrapment has made the calm and stillness of prayer seem even more unattainable. The problem is severe.
How to fix it? Weil helps us here again with her essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View To the Love of God.” In this essay she argues that the ultimate goal of all education should be to instill in students the capacity for attention through the hard work of remaining with the problems our school studies bring us. An intractable mathematical problem or the translation of a difficult passage from Vergil become instruments to sharpen the soul’s capacity for attention and so to prepare it for the ultimate work of prayer and the related work of service to our neighbor.
For many of us who are long past school studies, and in addition immersed in the world of media, it is unlikely that we will turn to Vergil or calculus to begin to re-train our fickle minds (though we would be better off if we did!). In their stead I suggest a more modest tool for training attention, one easily within our reach and ever-present in our cultural consciousness: the comic book.
A seemingly endless barrage of comic-book movies has hit us already and awaits us still in what remains of this decade. I have been a big fan of most of these movies, but for all my enthusiasm for these stories, I have not read their source material, comic books, since I was a teenager. That changed this past week, when I wandered into a comic book store and picked up, at the suggestion of the store clerk, the omnibus volume of Jeph Loeb’s and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween (the Batman comic most foundational for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy). As I began to read the book, realizations about my attention began to dawn on me. I noted that I was prone to rush through the gorgeous art painstakingly detailed in every frame by the book’s artists. My first impulse was to head directly to the text bubbles, in order to consume the story and progress at a clip along the narrative. But, over time, the comic itself stopped me; it slowly began to teach me how to read it, how to pay it the right kind of attention.
This happened first by the occasional page-long frames interrupting the regular small-frame narrations. Every couple of pages a particularly boisterous scene would require the space of an entire page or two, and in this space I was amazed by what the artists could do. The size of the frame allowed to be depicted an excess of motion as well as a momentous stillness, so that I felt as I scanned along the page, for example, both the force of Batman’s punch and the nobility of his stalwart presence. The backgrounds too exploded with detail in these mega-frames, inviting the eye to explore the scene and take time to take in the rich colors and intricate landscapes.
These occasional bursts into the regular narration served to stop my speed-reading of the other, smaller frames. This interfered with my quick absorption of story and moved me to focus instead on how this story was being told. I could not ‘scroll’ through the comic book—indeed, the very layout of the pages forced me to regularly work my eyes in all kinds of irregular patterns in order to experience the book. There is, therefore, an active element to comic book reading that can fruitfully disrupt the passive means of information gathering that our electronic media inculcate in us, and this active element demands attention.
Comic books, if we let them, can give us practice in this attention to detail, an attention that invites us to slow down and engage what is before us. This active element of reading comics constitutes most of the pleasure in them; if we find that in this mode of entertainment and art attention pays such rewards, we may find ourselves also taking the time to put away distractions, slow ourselves down, and await the benefits that come from attention to the world and those around us, and especially to the One above and within us.
Roberto De La Noval is a Ph.D. candidate at Notre Dame.