Blessed are the Single-Hearted, for they shall not Multitask.

We’re in the homestretch of Lent, a time when most people’s Lenten resolutions lie in tatters. Many of you have heard me say this before: In Lent, as in the rest of the spiritual life, the goal is not victory, but responsiveness. Success teaches us almost nothing. We learn precious little from perfectly-executed three-point Lenten plans. The most “effective” resolution is one that drives us back into the merciful arms of God, over and over again.

Nevertheless, in case you are feeling some kind of way about how your Lent is going, I thought I’d share a spectacular resolution-fail of my own from this weekend. (You’re welcome.)

For decades, I’ve been urging people to allow life to become its own Lenten discipline: striving to notice God’s daily invitations to prayer, sacrifice, and generosity. Wanting to add something more concrete this year, I decided that–in the interest of being more attentive to God’s invitations–I would do my best to give up multitasking for Lent.

[Insert riotous laughter here.]

Now, not for a minute did I think I could avoid multitasking altogether–though I’ve heard it argued that there really is no such thing: just sequential, fragmented attention. But I was inspired by Tish Harrison Warren’s January 16 opinion piece in the Times, in which she marveled at the fruits of not reaching for her phone at every transition point in her day, and encouraged us to “guard our margins.” Perhaps I stood a better chance of noticing God’s invitations, I reasoned, if I was not already trying to pay attention to two or three other things at the same time.

The result? Mixed fruit (so to speak). Previously, setting out for a long walk and discovering I’d left my headphones at home was profoundly unnerving; now, I sometimes abandon them on purpose and hit the trail with no voice but my own for company. Once upon a time, waiting for the altos, tenors, and basses to learn their parts during choir practice was an opportunity to scroll Instagram; now, I just enjoy listening to my friends sing. Sometimes, on the phone, I’ll flip open my laptop to check something then slam it shut, trying to stay focused on my conversation partner. Far too often, however, I catch myself multitasking, clear my mental throat . . . and keep right on going.

The epic fail happened yesterday, when we were about to catch a train into the city to see A Man for All Seasons (which I highly recommend; it runs through April 10). The train was at 12:29, and the station is about a five-minute walk from home (though we try to allow seven). At 12:13, I realized I had almost ten minutes available before we had to be out the door.

Lead us not into temptation! Ten minutes would have been plenty of time to don my shoes, find all my things, and close the bedroom doors so the dog we’re minding didn’t get into any trouble. It would have been a very pleasant ten minutes, and we might have gotten to the station with time to spare.

But wait, I thought: nine minutes is enough time to send an email–maybe even two! And so I did.

A handful of minutes later, leaving the house with not quite enough time to spare, I realized I couldn’t find my phone, in which are stored both my SEPTA pass (needed to get on the train) and my vaccination card (needed to get in the theater).

By the time I located my phone, there was no hope of making the once-an-hour train, so we wound up driving to the closest subway station and heading into town via a much slower and less pleasant route. The show was fantastic, but the shadow of my nonsense hung over the rest of the day.

With plenty of time on the subway to think–perchance to pray–I pondered the dark side of my relentless desire to get stuff done, always wanting to utilize the bits and pieces of my time productively. Those last-minute emails, I realized, represented both a failure to abstain from multitasking and the reason why multitasking is not actually possible. At 12:13, I had one job: preparing to leave the house. Fragmenting my attention didn’t help me get more done; it just kept me from doing Thing One.

To use Tish Harrison Warren’s phrase, I had neglected to guard my margins.

Why am I telling you this? After all, Christine-misplaces-her-phone-and-is-late-for-something is hardly breaking news. I share it in the spirit of my other Lenten commitment: the Ignatian Examen. Rummaging backwards through my day with God allows me to notice things I overlooked when they were happening, and ups the odds that I will be quicker to notice–and perhaps mend my ways–the next time. (I truly embraced the Examen once I realized I could pray it in the morning, but riding the subway midday is a prime opportunity as well.)

“Keep them, break them, make them again,” Jan Richardson says of resolutions. And so I shall, as long as God allows me to keep learning and growing as a result.

Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind
but straining forward to what lies ahead,
I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 3:13-14)

Let the church say AMEN!

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