By Doni Joszef
To be honest, I’m surprised you even have the time to read this.
Most of the people I know–and I shamelessly include myself among this ever-expanding group–are way too busy for anything even remotely reflective. For the most part, we are like ping-pong balls, rushing mindlessly from browser to inbox to newsfeed to eâ€‘book to text message, and back again.
While attention-deficit disorder tends to be associated with restless children, we adults are increasingly exhibiting signs of rather disordered attention ourselves. Fortunately, we have technology to blame! Overexposure to the superspeedy waves of modern media has inundated the psychic streams of our cognitive operating systems.
Simply put, our attention has been hijacked.
Now, the problem with this observation is not the fact that it’s obvious, but the fact that it’s erroneous. Our attention has not been hijacked so much as we look for, and ingeniously develop, a plethora of devices by which to keep it hijacked. “To think or not to think?” is the pervasive question, and “not to think” is our autonomic response. Facebook it is.
Adults are not scared of monsters; we are scared of our own thoughts and the paths down which they may lead. Distraction, from this perspective, is a self-employed defense, rather than an externally imposed offense. We do not get distracted, we choose to be distracted, because we are afraid to face some aspect of reality.
What, exactly, does this have to do with Pesach?
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“Why is this night different than all other nights?”
The Seder sequence is unique in a particularly psychological way.
There are behavioral elements–pillows, potatoes, and pinky dippings.
There are educational elements–youthful dialogue, historical discourse, and theological discussion.
There are emotional elements–fear blends into gratitude which blends into hope.
But, perhaps most acutely, there are cognitive elements–thoughts revert from an ethos of freedom to an ethos of bondage, and back again.
We are charged with mindfully regressing back into the chains of archaic bondage, only to emerge emancipated, anew, as if we haven’t done this a million times already (often in the ballroom of some Miami resort, far from your typical Egyptian slave cell). The underlying question perpetually reemerges, year after year: What exactly do we know from bondage?
Usually, this is where we draw on the Holocaust, as our grandparents share some horrific memories, while a sobering sense of reverence and awkwardness fills the air (until our waiter abruptly interjects to show us what’s on the dessert menu, making the scene that much more awkward).
But the Seder is not about recounting and reliving an era of genocide. We have enough holidays at our disposal to handle the genocide department. On Purim we confront the theme of national genocide, on Chanukah we confront the theme of spiritual genocide, on Tishah B’Av we confront the historical repetitiveness of said genocides; but on Pesach we don’t confront death, we confront depression. We confront life without passion, stress without satisfaction, overworking and underthinking:
“‘Intensify the men’s labors . . .’ (Sh’mos 5:9)–The intention was not just to deprive them of leisure . . . but to strip their hearts of all reflection by means of perpetual, interminable busyness” (Mesillas Yesharim Ch. 2).
This is what we confront, because this is what we deal with on a daily basis. We are not returning to Egypt; we are awakening to our own mindlessness, to our own busyness. And by doing so, we retrace the path which led us here: purposeless, thoughtless, lifeless labor for which we exchange potentially precious moments of meaningful living. On all other nights, this mental bondage operates on an unconscious level. On this night, we become conscious of it. We become free.
We’ve come to overuse the label “attention-deficit disorder.” A deeper look at our own disordered attention will reveal an underlying “aspiration-deficit disorder.” When humans lack a coherent sense of purpose, they will look to fill this existential void with either physical pleasure, mental distraction, or some strange concoction of the two. Hence: impulsivity and inability to focus. Hence: attention deficit.
Why is this night different than all other nights?
On all other nights we struggle with the speed of a structureless and purposeless stream of media bites, but on this night, we lose ourselves in the sanity of structure, in the order of “Seder,” in the sensational sense of meaning that comes with rekindled visions and rejuvenated aspirations. We reawaken to our true purpose, and in doing so we get a taste of true freedom. v
Doni Joszef is a writer and cognitive psychotherapist in private practice. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Psychology, exploring the psychodynamics of social media and their impact on our inner lives. He can be reached at 516-316-2247 or DJoszef@gmail.com. For more information, visit his website at DeficitOfAttention.com.