A friend of mine was assailed by sexual temptation whenever he walked across the University of Michigan Diag, a large open space in the center of campus. Why? Because in warm weather, hoards of scantily clad female students would pass through on their way to class. His solution? He simply took off his glasses, which transformed his Diag experience into a complete blur. Though he didn’t know it, he was practicing what classic spiritual writers have called “custody of the eyes.”
This discipline of monitoring what we allow ourselves to focus on can be useful for dealing with a variety of situations—at the beach, for instance, or when reading or watching television or movies. Though it may sound quaint in our sex-saturated society, it’s a discipline based on the practical recognition that visual cues can introduce powerful temptations. The same is true of listening to gossip or to certain kinds of music. Instead of maintaining complete openness to every kind of stimuli, we guard ourselves against whatever might negatively impact our spiritual health.
That means we also need to guard against extreme violence or obscene materialism. The former can lead to heightened anxiety or tolerance of violence, while the latter can lead to a lust for more. That’s why I refuse to watch horror movies and why I canceled my subscription to “Architectural Digest.” The triggers may be different for you than they are for me, but the point is we need to identify them and limit our exposure. Contrary to what we might think, visual and auditory stimuli are not necessarily neutral. They can shape our thoughts and actions in surprisingly powerful ways.