We were somewhere between Maryland and Indiana when the dashboard lit up.
Something to know about me: There are few things that can evoke such a sudden rush of anxiety quite like the warning messages that send ominous beeps bouncing about my Honda CR-V. And to think: We paid extra for these safety features.
My mind goes through the array of potential disasters: another nail in the tire, oil that’s old and obsolete, a battery that’s not quite able to hold a charge.
I glance down at the panel, taking my eyes off I-70 and my mind off our hoped-for July 4th plans, and read: Driver Attention Level Low.
How dare you, I think, insulted. I am quite attentive.
I roll my eyes and keep driving. Then, moments later: more beeps, more alerts and the wheel vibrates. The car is insisting that not only is my attention low but that I should also take a break.
I insist back to my rogue vehicle: My attention is just as high as my anxiety.
I strongly dislike this feature. I’m not at all sure how it knows to judge my level of attentiveness: Did I tap the brake too many times? Adjust the wheel too often? Is it the number of times I changed lanes? Is the speed of the vehicle inconsistent?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that I am always paying very close attention to the car, its occupants and my surroundings. That’s why my heart jumps into my eyes whenever I register a warning message: I’ll pull over and sell the car on the spot if that’s what it takes to guarantee safety.
It’s meant to be a helpful feature, to tell me that a cup of a coffee and some stretches would do me good. But it’s judging my performance based on an array of generic inputs; it’s not actually in my head, assessing what I see and feel and understand the moment to need.
In the spiritual life, we do need the occasional alert to wake us up and insist that we pay closer attention. Sometimes we rely too heavily on the proverbial cruise control to carry us along toward God. That beep beep beep might stir us from complacency, get us back into the present moment and God’s work therein.
But I think there are other times, too – perhaps just as many – when that sudden interruption throws us off course, distracts us from the good work we’re already undertaking and causes us to rethink what we already discerned to be a good and worthy project.
How often am I tempted to insert myself into the lives of others – spiritual, professional, emotional, whatever – and offer a “helpful” insight or hot take? I judge the supposed progress of another based on my own understanding of the world, my own context – or, perhaps, something I’ve read or watched – and fail to trust that person to make sense of their own world based on their experiences and in-the-moment insights.
Providing someone with an Attention Level Low warning might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy, sowing seeds of doubt, insecurity and dependency.
How might we, instead, marvel at God already at work in the lives of others, trusting in our God of surprises – and in the goodness of the person through whom God is working?
Are we being called to accompany rather than correct?
And, if we’re the ones who bristle at those not-so-helpful Attention Level Low warnings, can we see through the irritation to the good intention at its root?
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Eric Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Follow Eric’s writing at ericclaytonwrites.com.