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The Blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
January 25, 2013
Thou Shalt Pay Attention: ADHD and the Law
By the time you read this, I will have stood up and walked around my office building 150 times.
I will have looked up about 500 things on the Internet. I will have opened up at least 39 separate browser tabs from Wikipedia, at least one of which will probably be the entry for Dexys Midnight Runners. I will have tinkered with a draft of an important email 56 times. I will have daydreamed so often that my day will basically have been an episode of Muppet Babies.
I started this post yesterday. Yes, I’ve got ADHD.
When Ignorance Is Bliss
I didn’t know this about myself when I was a kid. Growing up, I just thought I was your average “talks constantly, can’t pay attention, just blurted the answer out loud in the middle of a test” grade-schooler. When I was a teenager, I thought I was your typical “bored in school, wishes he were anywhere else” adolescent. And after college, I thought I was just your garden-variety “can’t find the right job, hates the office (but who doesn’t?), why can’t I just do whatever I want?” young adult.
But then I turned 30, and suddenly I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was a grad-school and corporate-life washout because I couldn’t sit still or focus for an hour without going apehouse inside. Now I was the world’s oldest ministry intern, and only sporadically excelling at that.
Enter my friend Dan the Counselor (“You’ve got questions, I’ve got faux-leather chairs.”). Dan welcomed me into his book-stuffed office and, after some chit-chat, hauled out the DSM-IV, which is the Bible of psychiatric diagnosis. He proceeded to walk me through the criteria for ADHD.
“Do you have trouble maintaining attention when spoken to directly?”
Sorry, what did you just say?
“Do you sometimes hyper-focus for long periods of time?”
You mean like when I listened to one song from the Brave soundtrack on repeat for five-and-a-half hours straight at work?
“Do you have a hard time keeping track of things?”
Only when I put them down somewhere.
Ding, ding, ding. The hits kept coming. Yes, I do that. That too. Constantly. And that—but just since I was a zygote, thanks.
After I left the office and returned to my normal life, new ADHD diagnosis in hand, something interesting happened: I started to notice ADHD everywhere in my daily life. Putting the milk away in the cupboard instead of the refrigerator? ADHD. Listening to one song every day, over and over? ADHD. My inability to sit still in meetings for longer than ten minutes? ADHD.
Before I knew I had ADHD, I couldn’t see how any of these behaviors were ADHD-related. I thought they were just part of what made me a vast constellation of uniqueness, to put it in Sesame Street terms. But after I was diagnosed, I noticed ADHD poking its head around every corner of my life. Because I was looking, it was everywhere.
This newfound awareness of my ADHD eerily mirrored the apostle Paul’s description of the Law in Romans 5:20:
The law was added so that the trespass would increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.
Earlier in Romans, Paul points out that sin was in the world before the Mosaic Law was given, but it wasn’t counted as sin because there was no Law to break (Rom 5:13) and no explicit commandments to defy, as Adam had done in the Garden of Eden. In other words, the Law didn’t cause sin; it revealed it (Rom 7:7-9). Without the Law, Paul says, he would have never known the extent of his sin. But with it, he could suddenly see sin’s full magnitude. Like my ADHD, sin was everywhere he looked.
Who Am I?
Diagnoses—like the Law and ADHD—can be useful. They’re meant to give life and to be helpful to us. What’s not useful, however, are the labels that often come with them.
Labels kill us. They name us according to the deeds of our past and the stereotypes of our present. And since names are the primary source of our identity, they speak prophetically. They bind us into patterns of behavior we can struggle our whole lives to break free of.
What labels does the Law give us? Rebel. Wrongdoer. Weakling. Sinner. Those labels are our names in the deepest sense of what a name is—they are who we are in relation to God. But they can lead us to believe that’s all we are, and shape who we become.
ADHD is also a label. It doesn’t call me out as a sinner (ADHD, to be clear, is not a sin), which is nice. And it does explain why I act the way I do. But I always see the ADHD in my life now. I can’t un-see it. I’m living, in microcosm, the drama of Adam’s sin—I can never go back to a time before I ate the apple.
Who We Really Are
But there’s a hidden beauty to my ADHD. Like Paul says, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” In embodying the Law’s ubiquity and labeling power, ADHD almost becomes a weird kind of sacrament that forces me to daily remember the riches of God’s grace.
Sin cannot prevail over us when we are in Christ. This is not just a sloganeering rhetoric that we throw out whenever the water of life gets a little choppy. It is the real, hard-won knowledge that comes from reading even our most broken places with new labels, as the settings for loving redemption. We are not our sins. I am not my ADHD.
And you are not your ____.
The truth is that we who are in Christ are the places where grace increases all the more.
That’s spiritual Ritalin for your ADHD Law. Now, where’d I put my keys?
Drew Larson serves on the editorial and development team at InterVarsity.