Interruption Is Calling (Scholar’s Compass)

New Guinea photo

Coast Guardsman Relaxes In New Guinea Hills. Photo by England

Interruptibility frees me to be cehccessible and to relate to specific people in the path of my day, not hoarding my attention and energy for building only those linkages I may have defined as professionally strategic. How willing am I to view this interrupting situation as potentially more important work than what I had scheduled and planned for this hour, this day, or this season of life? On a broader scale, how willing am I to set aside my predetermined professional aspirations to be with people who have experienced tremendous interruption to every aspect of their lives? — Laura S. Meitzner Yoder


Life itself is an interruption. An unexpected, beautiful but messy interruption. I’ll vouch that you were not expecting it. Sprouting from cells into tiny toes, tinier brain cells and fighting from the womb of a woman in a river of blood and screams, was not something you, or I, had marked on our calendars.

If we work in a stressful setting however, the interruptible quality of life may be something we attempt to micro-manage into strict control. We create elaborate buffers to prevent us from being interrupted. Non-committal emails, maxed-out calendars and half felt apologies. Withdrawing the hand of friendship from those who demand too much. Sometimes, after excuses are made and we have escaped to the quiet café or library corner and shut the door to our office, we may feel something like guilt sinking its teeth into our shoulder.

For it would seem that for many, there is a deep anxiety about our professional lives. Those who have the resources to create buffers against interruptions, are those who have choices. Am I wasting the best years of my life shut up in a lab? Will my work amount to anything at all? Perhaps I am chasing the wrong research question. Using the wrong theory. (All these years I should have been measuring the size of blue ninja bees and not silver-tipped neon fish). Is my whole career a giant distraction? Will I get to the end and regret it all?

This feeling is not unique to academics, although perhaps the long hours of solitude that research frequently demands amplify our withdrawal. Max Weber suggested this feeling of distraction and guilt was the underlying ethos of a modern, secular life in which we practice a “selection” of values and a “calling” that offer no guarantee of satisfaction. “Culture becomes ever more meaningless as a locus of imperfection, of injustice, of suffering, of sin, of futility” (Weber 2008 [1915]:343). Weber argued that religious values were irrational, thus exacerbating modernity’s meaningless. Others however, have explained the meaningless of modern choice via a religious critique. Weber’s assessment is inverted by theologians such as David Bentley Hart, who claims secular modernity to be advocating “a very particular moral metaphysics: the unreality of any “value” higher than choice, or of any transcendent Good ordering desire towards a higher end. Desire is free to propose, seize, accept or reject, want or not want—but not to obey. Society must thus be secured against the intrusions of the Good, or of God, so that its citizens may determine their own lives by the choices they make”.

Dissatisfaction with the reality of our choices sometimes feeds into guilt and distraction. Reading papers that were probably a waste of time, checking email for the answers you must have, shifting through citations, comparing the successes of your colleagues, terrifying minutes gazing vacantly at the computer screen, online shopping for standing-magnetic-bullet-proof-walking desks, pausing your virtual slaying of dragons to throw paper clips down the mail chute, imaginary plans to upstage (or run off with) your departmental rival, cradling candy while disappearing into an online trail of news, videos and fear. Our distractions are deeply personal and unique, yet each seem to say something about the current state of our hearts. They speak to the privilege and the tyranny of choice.

If we wish to be set free from this false significance, to take a new perspective on our career and the use of our time, Laura S. Meitzner Yoder’s thoughtful chapter “Interruptions are not distractions” provides us with a deeply beautiful corrective. Dr Meitzner Yoder’s chapter is born from having worked in academic situations in Aceh Indonesia, New Guinea and East Timor, places marked by more violence and poverty than most of us will experience. Many of us have not contemplated what it might be like to teach proximate to rebel militia in New Guinea, or to do research with students who lost 111 professors in natural disasters; but Meitzner Yoder’s career in South East Asia introduces us to these places not for our pity, but for the opportunity for receiving instruction. When the academic lacks resources, it becomes more difficult to buffer your precious work from interruptions. The syllabus has to be re-designed to fit the situations at hand, fitting theory to the people, and not the other way around. Shared working spaces make it possible to offend others, which requires seeking forgiveness. Trust is gained through small, meaningful practices. Gracious words, attending important events, making space for the discussion of suffering in the classroom, recognizing the religious motivations of colleagues and students. In these academic settings, religion was not separate from intellectual endeavors as it is in other more privileged locations. Meitzner Yoder’s colleagues, expressed incredulous curiosity at the idea that overseas institutions would celebrate the secular freedom to work without God. They did not desire freedom from the interruption that is religion.

Meitzner Yoder’s experience alerts us to the fact that too often perhaps we try to arrange our careers as though atop a Manhattan skyscraper – standing above and separate from the world, it becomes possible to fit everything neatly into our knowledge and vision, reducing the cosmos to knowledge with by use of a “solar Eye, looking down like a god” (De Certeau 1984: 92). Following Jonathon Bonk (2010), Meitzner Yoder reminds Christians they have been commanded to follow a leader who refused to build buffers that would insulate him from us. As man on earth Jesus valued the “time-consuming, schedule-interrupting agendas of persons from the lowest strata of society” (Bonk 2010:12). Embracing others as interruption, is not, it should be clear, an invitation to us take up a salvation project. In following Jesus we recognize that we are weak, our time is short and our energy limited. The challenge here is to see our career not as defined by our choices, but by the way we practice Christ’s love in the world. Perhaps embracing Jesus as welcome interruption is part of what molds the shape of our hearts to be too full for distractions while welcome to those we can serve.

Jesus was born an interruption. As Stanley Haeurwas and William H. Willimon point out, the narrative of Luke 2 opens as a classic triumphant narrative of history. The calling of a census by men of power, Ceasar and Quirinius. Men who rule the world. Men who know a thing or two about calendars, time management and fame. Then however, Joseph and Mary enter the story. In introducing these small people bearing a tiny baby, “in just a few short verses, Luke has rearranged our idea of history” (1996:48). If we welcome the interruption of Jesus in our own lives, our own ideas of history, life and career will be rearranged. Do we welcome this?


Heavenly Father,

You gave us life and every gift, talent or resource we can exercise. Forgive us for our fears, our distractions and the buffers we create around our time and resources. By the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to discern distractions from interruptions and to see the value you place in those who bring interruptions into our work day. Give us a new perspective that we might not see our careers as meaningful choices, but as the daily practice of your presence. As we seek to steward the use of our time, show us how that time is time shared with others, both near and distant to us.

Thank you for your grace in Christ Jesus which is anew to us each day.


Further Reading

Michel de Certeau, (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.

David Bentley Hart, 2003, “Christ and Nothing”, First Things, October 2003.

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, (1996). Where resident aliens live: Exercises for Christian Practice. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Max Weber 2008, “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions” in Max Weber: Readings and commentary on modernity. Kalberg, S. (Ed). Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons. pp 341-343.

Yoder, Laura Meitzner. “Interruptions Are Not Distractions: Lessons from Teaching in Faith-steeped Conflict Zones of Southeast Asia.” Faithful is Successful. Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 198-212.

[[cited in Yoder’s chapter: Bonk, Jonathan. 2010. Thinking Small: Toward a Missiology of Interruptions. McLure Lectures, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, September 27-28, 2010.]]

Scholars-Compass-image-40x40Note: Part of both the Scholar’s Compass series and the Faithful is Successful series on the Emerging Scholars Network BlogHelp ESN Create a Devotional for Scholars.

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Bronwyn Isaacs

Bronwyn Isaacs is a PhD student in social anthropology at Harvard University. She hails from Sydney, Australia and studied at the University of Sydney and University College London before arriving in the USA. Her dissertation research project is located in Bangkok, Thailand, where she investigates how creativity and ethical practice in everyday manual labor contribute to the emergence of new economic communities in Southeast Asia.

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