The attention span of…an American

Published 9:46 am Saturday, July 25, 2015

by Andrew Book

Recently, my parents were in Courtland visiting from my hometown of Atlanta. They were only here for a few days, but in those few days the conversation kept returning to a subject that most Americans do not spend much time thinking about: Haiti. Haiti is an island nation in the Caribbean Sea not far from our borders. It is also the poorest country in the Western hemisphere that has been ravaged by political unrest, coups, earthquakes, droughts and more. Haiti occupied a prime spot in our news cycle for a month or two after the devastating earthquake of 2010, but as is almost always the case, what is pressing news one moment is soon eclipsed and forgotten about as we move on to the next new event in the nation or world.

The short attention span we have developed as Americans can be seen in our response to any number of major issues that are facing our world recently: the crises in Ukraine (still ongoing); the atrocities of the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria (still ongoing); the ongoing racial tensions in this country throughout the nation, especially in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, which made the news recently; questions about police use of force; the scandal of Planned Parenthood’s apparent sale of fetal organs and body parts; the racially motivated shootings in Charleston; our country’s relationship with Russia (and recent episodes involving Russian bombers almost entering U.S. airspace); and more.

The list goes on and on, but no matter how serious the news story or how dire the circumstances (have you heard about the refugee crises in Lebanon?), we quickly lose focus on the story and move on to the next “big” thing.

The problem is that these situations, whether domestic or international, are rarely solved by the time our collective attention span is exhausted. In general, we find a few moments for outrage that we express through a Facebook post or a letter to the editor, but then we are on to the next thing without having meaningfully done anything to address the previous problem! The reality of our world is that there are many places of hurt, pain, brokenness and just plain evil. But if we are not willing to focus our attention in one or two places, we will rarely be able to make any meaningful impact. We need to figure out how God is calling us to be involved and invest ourselves significantly in that area so that we can truly impact the world around us.

Even Jesus faced the challenge of the urgent threatening to take him away from living out his calling. Listen to this story in Mark 1:35-39 (which takes place after a day Jesus spent healing and casting out demons):

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues  and driving out demons.

Jesus took time in prayer to listen to God’s call and remember what he was about. Healing people in one town was a good thing to do, but it was not his calling. He stepped away from the “good” in order to focus on the reason why he came to earth — and we need to be willing to focus our energy in the same way.

That brings us back to Haiti. My father’s Catholic church in Atlanta has partnered with others to build, staff, and run a health clinic in central Haiti. My father is serving as chairman of the board who runs the clinic.

He is aware of the other challenges facing our nation and world, but his attention is on Haiti. The region around their clinic is filled past capacity with refugees who are fleeing the Dominican Republic (Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island) as the Dominican government begins a push to purge their country of Haitians without official paperwork. The influx of people is overwhelming the resources of an already overwhelmed country and the organization my father works with is trying to figure out how to respond with the limited resources they have. It is a serious situation, one marked by a risk of a new outbreak of cholera, starvation, rioting, and more. Despite the challenges, you probably have not heard about it because the crises in Haiti already received its moment in the news in 2010.

I am thankful for the attention span that my dad and those who work with him have for the people of Haiti, and I pray that we would all be able to find our “Haiti” — the place where God is calling us to invest our time and energy even when the story is no longer making the headlines and the rest of our country has moved on to thinking about something else.

If you are looking for a community that is asking hard questions about how we can meaningfully impact the world around us for Christ, we would love to have you join us at Courtland United Methodist Church.

Regardless of whether you join us here, I pray you will find your “Haiti” and make a difference!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or