Pay Attention! Your Life Depends on It

COMMENTARY: Does God’s design reward those who learn how to be alert to what matters most?

(photo: Shutterstock)

“… and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” — Matthew 28:20


Mass had just ended, and I stepped into the narthex when I was quickly approached by an acquaintance. With a sling on his left arm, he relayed the unfortunate news of his recent injury. While deer hunting, my friend had fallen 6 feet while coming down a ladder from a deer stand in the woods.

In his slight haste to come out of the tree, he had not taken his fingers out of his gloves and his hand slipped from the rung of the ladder. As a result, he received multiple fractures in his upper arm, which required multiple screws and a metal plate being surgically inserted at the break points to knit his bones together.

In 2016, more than 161,000 people in the U.S. died from unintentional injuries. The previous year there had been 30.8 million emergency-room visits for accidental injuries. Although some of the injuries or deaths were related to orthopedic issues or failed equipment, many of these accidents were related to distractions or poor decision-making.

Whether it was traffic accidents, accidental falls or unintentional poisonings, so many of these circumstances involved decision-making that was not grounded in the astute use of free will through directed attention and self-control.

A little ways back, I published a series of articles about free will, including “The Cornerstone of God’s Design,” “So the Bible Says — So Our Lifestyles Say Not” and “What the Eucharist Teaches Us About Free Will; What Free Will Teaches Us About the Eucharist.” Throughout these articles, the purpose was not to question that God works mysteriously in our lives to provide healing and guidance even when we are not aware. Examples and teachings abound to support this.

Yet even a cursory review of the lives of human beings suggests that what we do with (and how we develop) our free will is of ultimate importance, even in matters that, on the surface, bear no spiritual implications.

Consider further as follows:

A 4-year-old girl stares at the marshmallow. The man who is in charge tells her that if she waits until he returns, she can have two of them. Her mouth begins to water. The seconds click away on the wall clock until, finally, she can’t bear it anymore. She snatches it up and almost swallows it whole. Little did she know that the cameras were rolling, and she and many other young children her age were part of a long-term experiment (that later came to be known as the “Stanford Marshmallow” studies) to see just how much self-control predicts all sorts of later outcomes.

Ten to 15 years later, this girl and many other children are assessed on many factors. The results are astounding.

The longer children waited for the two marshmallows at preschool age, the more likely they were to be rated in adolescence and young adulthood as being more attentive, competent, organized, self-motivated, optimistic and intelligent.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was the significant correlation between the number of seconds a 4-year-old took to grab the marshmallow and SAT scores. Those who did not grab the marshmallow scored an average 200 points higher than those who did. The decades that followed bring similar findings.

Three factors in preschool are found to be associated with all sorts of adult outcomes: self-control, IQ and socioeconomic status (SES). Self-control is defined as skills related to self-discipline, conscientiousness and perseverance. A child’s self-control at the age of 3, regardless of his IQ and SES, is significantly associated with the following areas at the age of 32: physical health, substance dependence, socioeconomic status, wealth, single- versus two-parent rearing, financial success/difficulties and likelihood of criminal conviction.

Although early self-control is a significant lifelong predictor, improved self-control is associated with improved outcomes in all aforementioned areas. And of the three, it is the only one that can be taught and improved for all people over the long term. The point of this lesson, then? Self-control is intimately related to health, happiness, harmony and, I would argue, our pursuit for heaven more than we will ever know.

As we further consider God’s design and the occurrence of suffering in human beings, we come to a seminal conclusion: Bad things do happen to good people, even when sometimes they are doing everything right. But a closer review of all human suffering since the beginning of time, intentional or unintentional, reveals an undeniable truth: So much of suffering, self-imposed or otherwise, results not just from how we intentionally direct our actions but also from a lack of focus on our actions that allows us to recognize potential dangers at hand.

When we as human beings are faced with unexpected tragedies, we are often quick to look for an explanation that will ease our heartache. Very often we hear ourselves or others utter words such as “it must have been his time” or “God must have a reason that we can’t understand.” We understandably look for an explanation that provides some reassurance, for just as we have been taught that God is the gatekeeper of life, so God is the gatekeeper of death.

Yet rarely do we consider that inherent within his design of all that happens in this world is a simple but often hard-to-swallow message. Those who pay closest attention, and discern impending decisions with care, are often those who suffer the least.

Of course, just as quick as this statement is uttered come immediate challenges and rebuttals. “But what about those people born in poverty, or with a congenital condition, or who lived in the path of a tornado, or someone who contracted lung cancer and never smoked a day in his life?”

What about these people, who may very well have paid close attention to the details of what life demands and yet still suffered immensely? How do you reconcile this explanation with the idea that God’s design is founded on just how intently and intentionally we attend to and direct our free will?

The answer to these retorts lies in a simple observation. God created this world so that we would never be in full control, and thus always dependent on him. And yet, in doing so, what he did leave to our control has everything to do with the attention we heed from an earliest age.

Interestingly, one of the earliest signs of cognitive skills in infants is the degree of visual attention they exhibit. From there, as parents we seek to assist our children as they grow older in acquiring a sustained focus, discernment and other decision-making skills, and proper control of their emotions. The ability to master these skills is nothing short of God’s work, even for those children who may naturally struggle.

Every act of virtue or vice will be determined by it. Every health-related behavior will be controlled by it. Every decision linked to love, career and family will be influenced by it. Theology and science both come to the same conclusion: How we allocate our attention and free will is intimately a matter of life and death. And theology purports it is related to what happens after death, too (although God always has the final call).

Deep within the theology of free will (and the attention required to use it well) is another logical conclusion: If what we do with our free will is of utmost importance, then anything that threatens it is to be taken very seriously. For if God allows for death and injury to routinely happen to those who do not pay close attention and make prudent decisions, then it may turn out that distractions are one of our greatest enemies.

Combined with the malicious and reckless use of free will, our ability to pay attention, and act accordingly on all kinds of matters, sets the stage for much of the subsequent suffering. So often we are focused on the obvious “boilerplate” transgressions clearly marked by the Ten Commandments — thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, etc. But as C.S. Lewis noted in his classic Screwtape Letters, “You will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his [our] wandering attention.”

Indeed, the ability to fall from the path is never so simple as forgetting to cross our Ts and dot our Is in the Decalogue. As the Lord notes in Isaiah (51:4), “Pay attention to me, O my people, and give ear to me, O my nation; for a law will go forth from me, and I will set my justice for a light of the peoples.” In paying attention to him, we must wonder if the same admonition applies to all that happens in the world around us — the one which he created.

His design of the world suggests that if we are to reduce suffering and find greater joy, a focus on creation would be a good place to start. Maybe this is why prudence (not confused with being a “prude”) is widely considered the first of the cardinal virtues.

As Christ once noted (Matthew 25:13, 29), “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour. … For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.”

We must consider: Does God’s design reward those who learn how to be alert to what matters most, so that their actions become more intentional and their minds and hearts more discerning, moment by moment and day by day?

As each day passes, the more each of us can say “Yes” to this question, the more we may call our will truly free.


James Schroeder, Ph.D., is the vice president of the psychology program at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, Indiana.

He resides there with his wife, Amy, and their seven children.

He also is a regular guest on Relevant Radio and 

Son Rise Morning Show.