We all submit to distraction once a while (or perhaps more frequently), that much is obvious.
It’s rarely the lovely distraction of a gaze out the window at a vivid sunset, but more likely an altogether less engaged gawp at the glass of a glowing screen.
Even without an external prompt, buzz, or beep, we routinely relent to the impulse of diverting our concentration from something else.
It isn’t just electronics we reroute towards, of course. Distractions get grander when what we want to be distracted from looms larger. We might travel to far off lands as a means of “getting away from it all”, for example.
But what is it we’re getting away from? What is distraction relieving us of?
In answer to these questions, you might come up with a long list. Work, relationships, accommodation, money, health, and any other manner of worry or difficulty might feature.
But what if it was none of those things?
What if the thing we’re most trying to distract ourselves from is… ourselves?
Some supporting evidence for this comes from the aforementioned example of travel. We look forward to getting away, seeing it as a remedy to whatever is going on at home. But often our imagined experience of serenity in another location doesn’t materialise.
Socrates had a wonderful explanation for this misjudgement, as Seneca quotes in his Moral Letter 28:
“Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”
Yes, like it or not, we can’t get away from ourselves. Wherever we go, there we are.
Crowded House put it another way in their famous song: “Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.” Which is to say, we always carry our own “mental weather” on our journeys.
Seneca expands on Socrates’ well-worded warning:
Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, “Lands and cities are left astern,” your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.Seneca, Letters 28
This isn’t to discount the value of travel, of course. Certain far-off experiences can tease out welcome facets of our character that we didn’t know existed. And to absorb new cultures is key in cultivating open-mindedness.
The point is that through distraction, whatever form it may take, we seek to go somewhere else and in doing so to leave ourselves behind to deal with whatever situation seemed unacceptable to us.
If we are to accept Socrates’ advice and acknowledge that this simply isn’t possible, that we’ll always be with ourselves, then we are left with one strange but beautiful task: to become our own best friend.
If we achieve this, we can stay or go. We can persist through difficult moments knowing we’ll offer support to ourselves and we can absorb new experiences for what they are rather than attaching the goal of escapism to them.
We can be comfortable in our own company and face up to whatever is going on. Instead of seeking retreats elsewhere, we can create one within ourselves.
People try to find retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the sea, and in the mountains. A marked longing for such a haven has been a habit of yours too. But nothing could be more unphilosophical, given that you may retreat into yourself whenever you want. There’s no retreat more peaceful and untroubled than a man’s own mind, and this is especially true of a man who has inner resources which are such that he has only to dip into them to be entirely untroubled (and by “untroubled” I mean “composed”), so never stop allowing yourself to retreat there and be renewed.5 Make sure that these inner resources are concise and fundamental so that, when they present themselves to you, they are immediately sufficient to wash away every vexation once more and to send you back without resenting whatever it is that you’re returning to.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.3
It sounds appealing, but how do we do it?
How do we extinguish the urge to get away from ourselves or even find ourselves, and instead create ourselves and befriend ourselves?
Although there can be no golden set of prescriptive steps for this, I believe it starts by noticing our distractions. Using them as a signal that we are not in harmony with ourselves, we can gently return to reality and start a process of helping ourselves in the way that any best friend would.
And rather than try to solve everything immediately, a savvy best friend will guide us into asking ourselves better questions that we may arrive at a solution that is specific to us.
Even this considered act of asking ourselves questions is a great first step (one Socrates would surely have approved of) as it allows us to get to know ourselves better. How can you ever be best friends with someone without knowing them better?
Here are four friendly questions to consider when life leaves you longing for distraction.
1. Who am I?
(How do I want my best friend to think of me?)
This fundamental question prompts due consideration for what we value, giving us guidance on what to prioritise and what to pursue.
Through a steady base of principles, we create ourselves rather than find ourselves.
If we don’t establish our centre of gravity within ourselves to begin with, it will leave us constantly off balance and regularly seeking distraction from what we think we can’t handle.
The actions that follow on from your principles show the type of person you are, the type of person your best friend would be proud to know.
2. What am I struggling with?
(How would my best friend describe the problem I am facing?)
If we catch ourselves in the midst of distraction it will be useful to understand exactly what it is we can’t face in our own company.
With this question we think of how a friend might helpfully describe our situation in a less emotional manner than us.
In the plainest language possible, answer the question by defining the problem.
3. What am I capable of?
(What encouragement would my best friend give me?)
Your best friend will tell you that you’re capable of facing this.
You’re capable of staying in the moment, accepting what Fate has thrown your way, and not yielding to adversity.
This is not empty encouragement, it is based on the evidence gained from knowing you.
Bring to mind past difficulty you have gone through. Because if you’re here now, you prevailed.
4. What small action do I control?
(What simple advice would my best friend offer?)
Your best friend will offer practical, manageable advice.
They will tell you to focus on one thing at a time and to disregard the elements that are not within your control.
Work out what your first step is and take it.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a call to face everything in life alone. As Marcus Aurelius alluded to in Book 7 of his Meditations, there is no shame in being helped by others. But that help will be all the more effective if we aren’t battling with or running away from ourselves to begin with.
So, when when life gets hard and distractions become tempting, when it seems like getting away is the answer, start asking questions. And, as any best friend would do, stick by your own side.
Meanwhile, I owe you my little daily contribution; you shall be told what pleased me to-day in the writings of Hecato; it is these words: “What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.” That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.Seneca, Letters 6.7