Why we love lists — and why we shouldn’t

Why we love lists — and why we shouldn’t

When I got out of bed this morning, I didn’t realise today would be the day I discovered 5 Things to Keep Christmas Within Your Budget AND 24 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About The Wiggles And 5 Things Married Couples Should Do Every Day AND 10 Facts About Fungi That Will Astound You AND 18 Problems Only People Who Are Always Cold Understand.

And the lists go on. And on. And on.

The internet seems to have been created just so Star Wars updates, cat memes and lists can be pumped out.

Facebook feeds, annoying ads and reputable news sites are a never-ending source of Top 5s or Worst 23s or any topic you can think of that can be divided into bite-sized pieces (Exhibit A: 13 Things Tim Tams Are Tired of Hearing).

Don’t get me wrong. I love a list like the next Top 10 People That Love Lists. But should we love them as much as we do? Or do they reveal stuff about us that, you know, we really should be trying to change?

To answer that… here’s another list. Relax. It’s a short one.

1. Short attention span

Our attention spans are shrinking. With information, entertainment, video clips, tweets, texts, PMs and everything else constantly pouring in to our digital devices, we’ve hardly got the time to register that we just gave something a moment of our time. If we do pause to take something in, it can’t demand much from us — because we have to move on to the next thing.

The good ol’ list is a perfect fit for our attention-troubled age. Boiling down any topic to a random number of snappy headings, brief sentences and GIFs feeds our need to consume and move on. Heck, you often don’t even have to slow down and read the list carefully. Just scan it, get the vibe, and hurry along to 17 Secrets of a Competitive Eating Champion.

Lists aren’t the enemy, though. The enemy is our mindless consumption of them and the impact it has on our ability to concentrate, savour and register. Because if we continue to do things that shrink our attention spans, there’ll be at least one major consequence… that also is highlighted by our love of lists.


2. Give me the answer

The “shortcut” appeal of a list is undeniable. Most of us want answers to things as quickly as possible. We don’t want to have to work for it and wait for it. Just give it to us. Now.

Hey, presto! Answers! In a list, such as Top 5 Things You Need To Know About That Russian Jet That Was Shot Down Over Turkey!

Again, I’m not campaigning to destroy lists. They can be tremendously helpful, enlightening and entertaining. But have you or I stopped to ask what our list love reveals about how we seek answers?

Despite what Buzzfeed suggests, not everything has a simple, bite-sized answer. From “how did the universe come to be?” to “what is going on inside my soul, right now?”, there are topics and issues that don’t go so well when we demand fast, short answers.

We need to seek the answers in the right place…

Thinking about my own demand for having answers served up to me quick-smart got me thinking about how those that heard Jesus frequently demanded fast, short answers. Even a couple of thousand years ago before online lists, people were big fans of simple things. Often, what Jesus said and did puzzled people because they just wanted him to provide clear-cut answers (perhaps in a “Top 8 Things About The Messiah” way).

But Jesus frequently didn’t provide information in the form of a straightforward answer. Legendary is his speaking in parables – the ancient technique of storytelling that often used everyday illustrations to reveal one main point. But the thing about parables was the point Jesus was making didn’t always leap out at his listeners. To get the point required attention and effort.

Like many of us today, when we get frustrated at the answer not being immediately available, Jesus’ listeners didn’t always like his method of information sharing. But not taking time to listen, digest and explore what Jesus was saying meant that some could not have their questions answered… even though Jesus was actually providing the answers they were seeking.

So, what affect are lists having on the way we seek answers? Because as Jesus’ parables continue to demonstrate, there are plenty of topics that demand time and effort to wrestle with and comprehend. Even though Jesus always did explain his parables, people ever since have had to spend stacks of quality time trying to come to grips with them.

While that can sound like hard work — and you’d rather just go and skim-read another list — try to pause and consider that some answers ARE worth taking time to learn. Especially those that have the deep, eternal significance that Jesus was always talking about.

Ben McEachen


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