When people talk about ADD they usually are talking about an inability to focus. Attention disorders are prevalent in my family and, superficially, you might attribute a great deal of my behavior to this standard concept of ADD. In reality, however, my disability is exactly the opposite. I struggle with an Attention Over-Focus Disorder. I become over focused on a project, a task, or an idea, to the exclusion of perspective. It is very difficult for me to transfer my attention from one thing to another and as a result I often neglect important tasks, spend to much time on minutia, and resist change.
Over-focus is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, when my focus does shift to something that needs to be done, I am capable of long periods of sustained focus with a great deal of attention to detail and I get a lot accomplished. On the other, if my focus does somehow turn to something else before I have completed that upon which I was previously focused, it may be a long time before I manage to get back to it. And when I am over-focused I overreact negatively to even minor interruptions, tend to give undue weight to perceived slights or criticisms, unnecessarily go over the same idea repeatedly in my head, over-focus on the negative in general, and I don’t get anything else done, no matter how important it is.
Controlling this behavior involves influencing the levels of Dopamine and Serotonin in my brain. It is a tricky balance to strike because I need to become unfocused enough to not be over-focused, but still focussed enough to be productive. Often the effort results in an unhappy choice: I can be a pleasant, happy person and make my wife and children happy to be around me and be completely unproductive, or I can be highly productive and a miserable excuse for a husband and father. We have been praying that Heavenly Father would reveal to us a better solution to my disability.
Recently I have taken up running or jogging in the mornings as a way of trying to strike the balance. It appears to be helping.
I have never been a fan of body-building or physical exercise as a path to accomplish physical goals. I get very little personal satisfaction from being able to do a certain number of push-ups, or from running an impressive distance, from competing with others, or even competing with myself. What I am discovering, however, is that I do love physical exertion as a form of mental exercise and, more especially, of divine communion.
Many people I know who exercise regularly use an iPod or some other music player to provide a rhythm to their motion and to occupy their thoughts while they work out their bodies. I love to listen to music, and I love to dance, but I am too stingy to spend money on music technology. So when I started running I would run in silence; the quiet noises of the early morning street, the sound of my inadequate shoes on the pavement, and my own wheezing breath to entertain me.
Running without an iPod got me thinking and brought back some memories of my youth:
Years ago, when I was a 17-year-old preparing for an LDS mission, Brother Cox, the instructor for our priest’s quorum, gave some advice that has stuck with me for many years. He advised us to not spend too much time with headphones plugged into our ears. He said that wearing headphones simulates in many ways the sensation of thinking, except that the thoughts in your head are someone else’s and not your own. He described it as a form of substitute or proxy thinking. He also warned that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in our minds and in our hearts, but that it would be difficult for him to speak to our minds if they were constantly filled with simulated thinking pumped into our heads through headphones.
My father served in Vietnam. Since then he received a degree in Law and later a PhD in Social Psychology and has practiced law for most of my lifetime. As a teen, I remember him telling me a little about his boot camp experience, looking back on it with a social psycologist’s eye. He can correct me if I misremember, but if I recall correctly he said that when he arrived at boot camp part of the training involved long marches and runs. As part of that conditioning the soldiers would sing Military Cadences as they marched. The cadences served various purposes. Physically, they helped the soldiers regulate their breathing throughout the march. Emotionally and socially they unified the soldiers with one voice. They also helped mold the soldier’s thinking. Many of the cadences were very vulgar and offensive and designed to dehumanize the Vietnamese. At first my father refused to sing them. However, by the time he finished boot camp, he sang along with everyone else.
His recollections have stayed with me for many years now.
Some weeks ago, these thoughts and memories running through my head as my body ran through the darkness, I was inspired to start singing Hymns while I ran. If the military could use the combination of physical exertion and singing to change men physically, mentally, and emotionally into soldiers, perhaps I could use the same combination to invite the Lord to change me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually into His soldier.
The Hymns became my Military Cadences.
In their roots and in our religious texts, the words Spirit and Breath, and related words, are semantically and functionally intertwined. As I ran, my feet becoming a physical metronome, my breath ceased to be simply breath and became spiritual, as each one was forcibly formed into devotional song (muttered and gasped at first, but over time increasing clear, confidant, and controlled).
In his book “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis observes that human beings “are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” The Lord taught me to unite physical exercise, mental exercise, and spiritual exercise into one. Using hymns as military cadences changes my run into a physical prayer, a peculiar devotional dance sustained longer than most of my other prayers; binding my body to the words of Christ and molding my thinking toward eternal truth.
Instead of pounding, step-by-step, the dead gospels of rap or rock through headphones into my head, I enjoin my body, mostly against its will, to breathe out words of voluntary worship: mind, body, and spirit.
And it is good.
My over-focus is not gone. But with the help of Jesus Christ and my morning physical prayer, I believe that the Lord can teach me how to turn that weakness into a strength.