Focus

Years ago I had a conversation with a cardiovascular surgeon. He was a philosophical thinker, having grown up with a father who was a seminary professor and a brother who became a psychiatrist. He said that one thing that attracted him about vascular surgery is that it demands absolute focus. You can’t be a good surgeon and be distracted. To learn what you need to learn to do that kind of surgery you have to be doing only one thing when you are studying. You can’t think about anything else.

I’m sure it was a bit of exaggeration for the sake of making a point. I know that surgeons are focused and that they learn to lay aside normal everyday thoughts, but they are still human. Their minds continue to be complex and there are certain basic human functions that cannot be fully controlled. You can practice, but you never become perfect. Still, the example has been meaningful to me as I have lived my life and thought about my chosen profession.

The mental side of ministry requires a different kind of focus. There are times when I need to be very focused. When I am helping someone who is struggling with grief, for example, I need to be fully present to their situation and not distracted. At the same time, I know that the next situation in which I find myself might require a completely different perspective. Leading worship is about serving a group of people with very diverse circumstances and expectations. Part of the task of worship leadership is getting others to focus their attention on our shared scripture and message. And ministry, at least the way it has been practiced in my narrow window of time, has meant a lot of meetings. Meetings require listening while at the same time seeking creative solutions to problems. I learned early on in my career that one of my roles in a meeting is to be a check on my own talking. When I talk too much, other leaders pull back and the effectiveness of the group is diminished.

The Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” I read Kierkegaard early in my educational career and this quote remains as a way of thinking about intellectual and emotional focus. It is a quality that a young child can demonstrate very effectively. I remember trying to distract our children when, for example, their mother needed a little space and the child wants the mother. You’d think I could come up with some activity or some food or something that would at least momentarily distract the child, but when a child is focused, they become capable of thinking about only one thing.

My life rarely gives me the luxury of thinking about just one thing. I try to focus when I meditate and pray and I’ve gained skills and abilities at focus. But a lifetime is too short of truly master the skills of focus.

On the other hand, the now popular concept of multi-tasking completely eludes me, too. I can’t work on my computer and talk on the phone at the same time. I’ll either enter gibberish into the computer or fail to hold up my end of the phone conversation. I know that psychologists have learned that those who do multiple tasks at once aren’t really doing many things at once, but rather making quick switches from one thing to another. An example might be a pilot flying an airplane. The pilot doesn’t look at all of the gauges and instruments at once, but rather scans quickly from one thing to the next. Some people become very adept at rapid shifts in focus so that they can change from one thing to the next to the next without disrupting their pace.

Whether you are a vascular surgeon or a computer gaming developer, all people need to make priorities. Not every task has the same amount of meaning. Not every task is as important as another. Some things can be delayed without causing problems, but deadlines exist and consequences are real. My surgeon friend acknowledged that he has colleagues who are very accomplished surgeons who are not very good parents. They neglect certain areas of their lives in order to maintain their vocational focus. I know that there were times when I allowed my job to pull me away from my family that in retrospect I wish I had made a different choice.

Part of effectiveness in any profession is the development of a balance between personal and professional life.

Lately I have been wondering if the skill of intense focus is, at least in part, the purview of the young. With age and experience come more and more memories. I am constantly comparing situations in which I find myself with previous experiences. My past informs much of what I do. I draw on lessons learned from other events when facing new challenges. But I also find all of my memories to be a distraction at times when I want to focus. As we prepare to make a move later this year, I sort through files in my office or boxes at home and I find myself being distracted from the task by something that I run across that stirs a memory. I definitely do not want to live in the past, but my memories are precious and delicious and I don’t want to run away from them either. The older I have grown the more memories I have that need constant attention.

In Kierkegaard’s terms, I no longer aspire to “purity of heart.” I’ve learned that submitting to God’s will is far more important than pursuing my own wants and desires. I’m convinced that the will of others is important to the life of the community. It isn’t all about me.

Then again, I might be justifying the scramble that is my brain at this age and stage of my life.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!