What should we pay attention to during a world-changing crisis? This past February, oblivious to COVID-19, I sat in a small conference room just outside of Washington, D.C., trying to convince healthcare researchers that they should worry less about optimizing medical decision-making, and instead try to better appreciate patients as unique human beings. If they did that, I suggested, most of the conflicts that medical ethicists confront would be avoided.
Three weeks later, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. One of the physicians who had listened to my presentation was summoned to Lodi, Italy—site of the direst surge of COVID-19—to care for the dying. Others were advising state and national government on pandemic response. Back home in Wisconsin, I threw myself into vetting triage policies for a local hospital, in case a critical shortage of protective equipment, ventilators, or ICU beds arises here. There would be no time for beholding patients then. What was needed was an algorithm for prioritizing medical resources if some who needed them had to go without. I was drawn into the decision-making optimization that I had, just a few weeks earlier, argued was antithetical to genuine ethical attentiveness.
Crisis focuses and it restricts. I was utterly focused on trying to adjudicate the differences among triage protocols from around the country: Should we follow Wisconsin’s task force recommendation that age be a tie-breaker among patients with similar prognosis? Or is a lottery a more equitable tie-breaker? I also found myself growing increasingly impatient with those who were calling on medical ethicists to consider the various social and political ills that have worsened the pandemic, since these systemic concerns were not going to help to create a practicable triage protocol ahead of the possible surge. While I was extremely focused on helping to create a justifiable triage protocol, my ability to attend to anything else of ethical significance faded.
Eliminating distraction allows us to attend to one goal, such as creating a triage protocol, but distraction is not the paramount challenge to attention. Preoccupation is an even greater challenge. Consider three ways I can fail to attend to a post that recently appeared on my Twitter feed: “Sports fans starved for live games may find a measure of salvation from an unlikely source: South Korean baseball” (New York Times, May 5, 2020). I could fail to attend to the tweet because I am drowsy and simply cannot parse the sentence—that’s inattention. I might be able to parse the tweet but fail to attend, because a more alluring tweet diverts my interest—that’s distraction. Finally, I might fail to attend because my focus on medical interventions leads me to dismiss it (“Salvation from baseball? Seriously?”)— that’s preoccupation.
Attention is supposed to be a literal stretching toward (from the Latin ad + tendere). Whereas distraction prevents us from reaching our goals, preoccupation prevents us from reaching beyond our goals and beholding the objects outside us. When we behold an object, we open ourselves to reevaluating our goals by giving ourselves over to something outside ourselves. A beautiful example of practice in beholding comes from a college assignment from the late art historian Joanna Ziegler. Ziegler required her students to visit the Worcester Art Museum every week for an entire semester, writing a paper each time, on the very same painting. She asked her students not to consult any readings, not even the wall text. Students were instead, in five pages or so, “to describe, as simply and directly as they could, what they see, what is on the canvas”—again, with the same painting, thirteen times. Ziegler reported that over the course of the semester, her students were transformed “from superficial spectators…into skilled, disciplined beholders.” Successfully stretching to the object of attention means reaching past the wall caption, beyond on our own concerns, beyond an essay prompt, and allowing ourselves to being guided by what we find at the end of our reach.
When the pandemic ends, there will be no shortage of crises, outrages, and cultural crazes to usurp our attention. One response we might have to this constant deluge is to shut it off, practice attention hygiene, and join the increasing ranks of “news avoiders.” Fastidious attention hygiene may enable me to become the hyper-productive individual that I have always wanted to be. However, what attention hygiene misses is that so many attentional lures actually deserve my attention—they are urgent, beautiful, or simply interesting. Moreover, no amount of attention hygiene can help with the problem of preoccupation. Shut me in a windowless, soundproof room with a stack of journals, and I will not be one bit closer to moving beyond my preoccupations to appreciate the concerns of the authors.
So what should we attend to during this time, or any other time, of crisis? If we are concerned with the fullest exercise of our attention, I think we would do well to ask a different question: How does this crisis prevent me from beholding the world, and reevaluating my goals in light of what I find out there?
Though there is no simple recipe for shedding one’s preoccupations, in The Sovereignty of the Good the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch provides a variety of remedies. During this time of home confinement, one remedy in particular resonates with me:
I am looking outside my window in an anxious and resentful frame of mind oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.
Thus, my laptop is deliberately perched in front of the largest window in my house, so that I may be distracted by things that have no interest in my work: the squirrel digging up my flower bed, the birds on their unfathomable flights, and the occasional bicyclist who seems to be commuting…but to where? At the least, these moments provide an escape from the weight of my brooding preoccupations, whether it is COVID preparedness, unfinished academic work, or the precarious health of my elderly parents. At the most, the window is a prompt to engage with what Murdoch thinks “we are usually too selfish and too timid to realize, the minute and absolutely random detail of the world.” While the shadow of crisis darkens the world’s inimitable detail, it is by attending to that detail that we might find both temporary refuge and lasting escape.