How to Learn a Million Things That Aren’t Worth Learning

After writing my first serious humanities paper in almost ten years, I have to say that I learned a lot.  I learned that the metaphysical status of the last six of Aristotle’s categories is far from a settled issue among commentators on St. Thomas.  I learned that the philosophical term ‘denomination’ comes from the Greek word paronym in Boethius’ early Latin translation of Aristotle.  And I learned that vikings didn’t wear horned helmets.

That last one might seem a bit out-of-place when talking about Thomistic metaphysics, and it is, which is exactly what I was looking for.  In the highly developed art of procrastination, one of the fundamentals is finding something, anything, to occupy your mind so you don’t have to think about that massive deadline looming over you.  When you’re on the prowl for distractions, discovering that Wikipedia has a page entitled “List of common misconceptions” is a gold mine (seriously though, they’ve discovered a fifth taste bud for meaty flavors).

Reflecting on my own battles with procrastination and the tactic of all-out distraction reminded me of a passage I came across, oddly enough, on one of the first silent retreats I ever went on.  In his Retreat for Lay People, Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote, back in 1955:

We are so desperately keen, most of us, not to leave our attention unoccupied for a single moment: keeping the wireless on at all hours, picking up the newspaper, though we’ve already been through all that matters in it, just to while away three minutes before luncheon, humming a tune even as we walk down the street, as if we feared to be left, even for a moment, at the mercy of our thoughts.

To think that people fifty years ago had trouble staying focused without headphones welded to their ears, thousands of TV channels, hundreds of millions of random videos on their computer and the answer to any curious whim in their pocket!  What chance does someone today have?  While this realization can be scary, it can be encouraging at the same time.  We in this age are not really so unique as we’d like to think.  Sure, we may have more gadgets and gizmos to make our distraction more efficient and all-engrossing, but the simple idea of trying to drown out our thoughts is not so new, and for that reason the age-old remedies are just as potent.  The solution Knox provides, like the solution to so many of our seemingly insurmountable habits, is prayer.

By unplugging, even for just a few minutes, we recognize that the amusements that have become so pervasive are not enough to satisfy us, and by turning to God we seek out Him whom, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re often trying to avoid with those diversions in the first place.  As simple as this is in theory, it can be quite demanding in practice.  Perhaps most difficult is the honesty it takes about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  As for myself, I’ll try to keep this in mind the next time I find myself beset by a fit of procrastination.  Until that happens, I’m gonna have to double-check the references on this claim that gyroscopic forces aren’t what keeps you from falling off your bike.

Image: Andreas Feininger, Science and Research

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Br. Thomas Davenport was born in Mt. Clemens, MI, the son of an Army officer, and moved a number of times with his parents and older brother while growing up. Eventually he graduated from high school in northern Virginia, where his parents still live and attend Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. He studied physics at the California Institute of Technology and went on to earn a PhD in physics from Stanford University. On