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Driven to Distraction

Another news cycle, another avoidable tragedy.

Only days after an Amtrak train collided with a garbage truck in rural Virginia, another passenger train slammed into a stationary cargo train outside of Columbia, South Carolina.

Initial reports offered little clarity as to what went wrong. Apparently, the southbound train was diverted onto the wrong track, but no one seems able to explain why. Investigators promise to search for answers.

But if the DuPont, Washington, derailing of 18 November is any indication, answers may not be forthcoming. After a month of interviews and fact-finding, all we have is a CNN report that engineers and conductors complained to their supervisors of feeling unfamiliar with the new route due to inadequate preparation and too few practice runs. They claim that their objections were overruled in a scramble to open the new line on schedule.

But even if that’s true, it hardly explains why the engineer was driving his train into a turn at 80 MPH when he should have been going 30.

Whatever conclusions eventually come to light, there might be a simple, if distressing, answer: that, as a society, our level of distraction has become a very real threat to public safety.

It’s not just trains. Drivers can often be seen texting through green lights, and many of them seem unfamiliar with the device once called a turn-indicator. Pedestrians cross the street against the signal without hesitation, as if oncoming traffic has no more substance than the pixels on their screens. An entire “mindfulness” industry has been created to save people from their own inattention.

Our whole generation has been swallowed alive by its devices, even when we aren’t using them. It was only 12 years ago in Batman Begins that Liam Neeson admonished Christian Bale with the classic line, “Always mind your surroundings.” One wonders if audiences today would have any clue what he was talking about.

The depressing irony of our “connected society” can be found everywhere. Incapable of separation from our phones and tablets, we don’t answer texts, don’t return calls, don’t respond to emails. We interrupt real interactions with real people to check notifications that we instantly forget. We ignore people in real and virtual time without even noticing that we’re ignoring them. We’re so overstimulated that we reflexively filter out most of what’s going on right in front of us.

It’s not enough to have a flat screen that can simultaneously display four separate channels. We have to be listening to music on our headphones, texting, and scrolling through Facebook -- all at the same time. We’re so afraid of missing out by not seeing something that instead we miss everything we see.

Could those of us past middle age have imagined that one day we would wax nostalgic for the bygone era when children sat glued to the TV set watching a single show? At least then they were focused on something, rather that drifting vacantly through a kaleidoscope of disassociated images.

King Solomon says, Your eyes shall see strange things, and your heart shall utter nonsense; and you shall be as one adrift on the heart of the sea.

As we sate ourselves with dazzling imagery bereft of meaning or substance, our minds lose their capacity to formulate coherent thoughts. We meander through our lives inattentive to both the wisdom that fills our world and the dangers that threaten us because of our inattention.

Reality requires effort. Relationships demand work. Coherent thought takes disciplined effort. The reward is a richer life, a safer existence, and a feeling of genuine purpose and accomplishment that is the source of true happiness.

Published in Jewish World Review

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