Mini-Feature: Distracting Ourselves from Reality

Why do humans have such a strong urge to distract ourselves from the real world?

Distraction is our best way of making ourselves forget our responsibility for ourselves and others. Total distraction means distracting ourselves from the recollection that we are distracting ourselves. “Losing yourself in the moment,” an idol of our age, is a perfect excuse to distract yourself from the fact that you are distracting yourself.

But the reality is reality is back and it is very pissed off. Fantasy is losing its magical grip: more and more we struggle to “suspend disbelief.” We become ever more aware that we are distracting ourselves: we require drugs, basically, to get that old fashioned high, or else a religion that picks up where fantasy falls down, for instance the gnosticism creed of liberating the divine self from its evil biological confines.

There is ever less an apparent escape from reality, even as the fleeting escapes on sale strain to feel consuming. But there is no escape from religion, and in an especially abrupt encounter with reality, there is no guarantee that the best and truest of creeds will hold sway.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


I don't think there is much question that paying attention to the real world is immensely difficult and painful, and reaps questionable dividends. The world is a place of struggle, illness, and misery. Who would want to attend to all of that more than necessary? We probably evolved dreams as a respite from dealing with reality--the humans who didn't get to dream may have just withered away under the psychic stress of dealing with exigency day and night.

As soon as people started talking they made up stories to take their minds off things. Myths and religion doubtlessly grew out of that restlessness. Browsing around and eating whatever they could find, early man was probably delighted to find poisonous plants that, while making them sick, also induced delusions of escape. Whatever accident first led to the discovery of alcohol was surely hailed as a miracle from God.

Every new technology in history was immediately put to work diverting humans from suffering and toward frivolity, or something approaching it. Everything hard in life is dealt with as expeditiously as possible so we can return to having fun or at least feeling no pain. 

The usual tone to strike when addressing this question is to assume disappointment that people are so aversive to reality. But when reality is essentially a gaping hole of oblivion to which we inexorably tend, it's a little blue nosed to fuss that most people would prefer not to stare into the gap.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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The real world sucks! Also it's hard. Of course we cast about for something, anything, to take our minds off it: movies, drugs, Twitter, porn, Even people who love their lives (I count myself one) feel this urge when something is uncomfortable, or nerve-wracking, or demanding. I switch off especially when the work ahead of me requires not just that I exert effort but that I reconfigure ways of thinking and patterns of assumption that have been engrained in me since childhood. But of course even the things we use to distract ourselves are part of "the real world," which means they suffer from all the same dysfunctions. Self-distraction, in the end, is self-defeat.

One of the great gifts of Christianity, then, is that it liberates you from having to pretend things are "for the best" or "all in balance" or whatever nonsense. Some things really totally blow! Injustice occurs! A Christian's central spiritual task each day is not to distract himself from these facts, or wish them away with happy talk, but face them head-on and confess: whatever is going to make this okay, it's not here yet. Accept this—take the true fall-of-man pill—and you can start to make peace with it. Then you can find joy, meaning, even success sometimes, once you have taken for granted that the norm and the inevitable is suffering and death. Either your view of life is tragic, or it is false. Those are your options.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind