8 Seconds

Second Sunday of Lent


Time Magazine reported in a 2015 study conducted by Microsoft Corporation in Canada that the average adult human attention span is 8 seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began). It might also help to note that this measure of the average adult human attention span is a second shorter than that of the average goldfish.[1] I couldn’t find any details on the actual study. But I think it was set up to purposely measure the web surfing habits of the average teenager, and the TV channel changing habits of the average adult man. But I am more than a little suspicious about how they measured the average attention span of goldfish. On the positive side—there is a positive side—our ability to multitask has vastly improved. I think that really means we are more distracted, although we think we are actually doing more, or better.

In 2017, this study was reviewed by a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Chicago, a neurologist and authority on brain metabolism at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis MO, a clinical psychologist who tracks the latest scientific information on people with ADHD, and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Chicago.[2] Tracking down the sources of the 2015 Microsoft study, they discovered that the information reported originated from a 2008 report by the Statistic Brain Research Institute in LA, San Francisco, and New York, that tested 25 people and how long they stayed on a webpage. I was right! However, details from other sources including the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and the Associated Press could not be substantiated. Instead they concluded that “features of human attention are too complex to reduce to a span of time, and the metrics scientists do track haven’t changed in generations.”[3] Plus, a couple of months later, the BBC World Service, citing a scientist who studied fish behavior for a half century, concluded that goldfish don’t have short attention spans and attention spans of humans are not shrinking.[4] All that just to tell you nothing you don’t already know, which, if you’re still with me, is all the proof you need.

I am accustomed to asking people in large rooms for their attention. Sometimes I use a bell. Or I raise my volume. Or I wave my arms. Or I just stand quietly and wait, hoping eventually people will notice. At times I’m not sure people are really listening or just rearranging their sock drawers. But I firmly believe that when we are able to pay attention, we will hear God speak. I say pay closer attention to what God is saying. Don’t mind me. I’m a pastor and a middle child. I’m accustomed to being ignored.

When God wants our attention, God will find a way. The story of Abraham and Isaac we read from the book of Genesis is a bit extreme, we might think. The sacred author says from the start, it was a test. Some scripture scholars are of the opinion that the neighboring Ammonites may have practiced human sacrifice.[5] But God’s explicit command that Abraham do no harm to his son proves this sort of holocaust was exactly something Israel’s God did not desire. And if we can get past how God chose to get Abraham’s attention, we could really look deeper to discover what God was getting at.

The gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain definitely got the attention of Peter, James, and John. What they saw with their own eyes that day so impressed and terrified them, they hardly knew what to say. Peter did run his mouth a little suggesting they stay awhile. It’s what goes through our minds when we encounter something so mind-blowing. But they also heard a voice speak from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” The vision with Moses and Elijah was just to get their attention. Overkill, you think? I’m sure you know God can be subtle as well. But when God wants to impress, there’s no telling. It all comes down to the point God wants to make. “Listen to him.” I bet Peter, James, and John had no trouble remembering that.

When God finally got Abraham’s attention, God told him, “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing—all this because you obeyed my command.”[6] We should notice a parallel between what God asks of us and what we can expect of him. By asking Abraham to trust him completely enough to offer his own son Isaac as a holocaust, but in reality desiring no such a thing, and by sending his own beloved son Jesus to offer his own life that humankind might be reconciled with himself, God assures us of his unconditional love and enduring compassion. Meanwhile, our distorted perception of our own unworthiness of God’s grand gesture continues to obscure our hearts and minds. We still think and believe tragically that God’s faithfulness and favor depend on us and what we think and what we do. I say it’s tragic because God’s grand gesture goes right over our heads. As with Abraham, God desires our complete and total trust and dependence on him. And rightly so, God always deserves our best and utmost. We need not prove it with some grand gesture of our own. We need only do what Peter, James, and John heard on the mountain. “Listen to him.” That’s it? Now you and I and every parent can tell you’re not really listening if you still prefer to do differently from what you’ve been told, and what you know, and what you believe. Put the phone down and pay attention. Stop looking at everyone else. Look at yourself, and your own words, and your own actions.

St. Paul reminds us God is not the bad guy here. “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? Who will bring a charge against [us]? Not God! Who will condemn [us]? Not God either! Christ Jesus it is … who indeed intercedes for us.” God is on our side. And God’s grand gesture is right there always and ever before us, the sacrifice that God was willing to offer to reconcile us to himself. If you don’t remember much else, remember that. But above all, focus. Put the phone down. Pay attention. Clear your head. Quit fidgeting. I said, put the phone down. And listen. You can do better than 8 seconds.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018


[1] http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-your-attention-span-shorter-than-a-goldfishs-1487340000

[3] ibid.

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38896790

[5] https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/first-person-human-sacrifice-to-an-ammonite-god/

[6] Genesis 22: 17-18