Minding Our Minds   /   Summer 2014   /    Minding Our Minds

Pay Attention!

Mark Edmundson

Sam Hundley

Are we immersing ourselves too far deep into the land where Whirl is King? Have we lost our ability to pay attention? Are we, too, going nuts?

Pay attention! How much about our current situation, our life and times, may be locked in that simple and rather commonplace instruction? Pay attention! To have been a student—and most of us have been—is no doubt to have heard the phrase directed at you. To be a parent or teacher (or doctor, or lawyer, or judge or cop or priest or minister or imam) is inevitably to utter the curt imperative: pay attention!

Is the phrase more common now than it was a decade or two ago? One wouldn’t be surprised if it were. For attention has become a critical term at the center of a multitude of social issues and human concerns. We of the elder generation are disposed to worry about the fragmented minds of the younger. We wonder if texting-while-viewing-while-talking-while-eating and never being in the same place at the same time may be having a deleterious effect on the young. Are they incapable of concerted focus? Are they unable to sit and think? Have they been driven (by distraction) to distraction?

And ourselves, those who were educated before the advent of the purportedly deracinating Internet—how does it go with us? Are we slowly losing the coherence of mind we once had? (We did have that, right?) Are we immersing ourselves too far deep into the land where Whirl is King, and slowly becoming distracted citizens of that sadly confused and confusing domain? Have we lost our ability to pay attention? Are we, too, going nuts?

Pay attention! The phrase bears some considering. In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche posed the question of the nature of language and made an acute observation. Language, he wrote, is a mobile host of metaphors and metonyms that have become conventional over time. Words become like coins that have been worn plain from overuse. We no longer see the tropes that are embedded in our language, the figures of everyday speech. Well, here is one such trope: Attention is something that must be paid. Paying attention is not unrelated to discharging a debt, to offering tribute, to giving the entity that demands the attention something akin to cash. When you tell someone to pay attention, you are trying to take something from him, something that, one might assume, he does not wish to give: his focus, his presence of mind, his full being. Is it possible that paying attention is akin to paying tribute? When someone asks you to pay attention, he is imposing authority on you. Perhaps it is not that we can’t get ourselves to focus on this or that matter, but simply that offering attention is felt as a challenge, a burden. “I made myself pay attention, even though what he was saying was boring.” “It wasn’t easy to pay attention to him, but I did.” There’s a tribute involved. There’s a tax. There’s a debt. Do you understand? Are you paying attention to me? We can take satisfaction in paying a bill, or getting rid of a debt, but it is never exactly a joy.

Happiness as Absorption

Is it surprising, then, that people have difficulty conferring attention? Attention is a discipline, a compulsion, and of course it’s a bodily posture. One stands at attention. The drill sergeant shrieks, the cadet hops to and makes his body a vertical beam. He’s now a missile, a pole, a strong and well-disciplined I. Standing at attention hurts (at least after a while), though it can no doubt have its satisfactions, too. The mind, or the higher mind (Sigmund Freud called it a superego), exerts control over the body, and the body obediently responds.

To many, the discipline of attention—and common usage has shown us that it is a discipline—seems to be in short supply. We bemoan the fact that young people (and sometimes we ourselves) cannot sit down and focus. We blame it on the Internet and social media and a permissive culture geared too much to pleasure and too little to discipline. We say that we’re sick. As a culture, we have a case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or at least the attention deficit part.

What’s the opposite of attention? What are we doing when we cannot pay attention? Why, we are distracted, of course. The opposite of attention is distraction. When we ought to be homing in on one thing, our mind is romping through many. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge complimented William Wordsworth for being “all man” and for his ability to “do one thing at a time.”) Maybe distraction is the scattered, regrettable reverse side of attention, but I’m not quite sure that resolves matters.

I’d say, rather, that the deep opposite of attention isn’t distraction, but absorption. No one ever tells you to “pay absorption.” Absorption is what occurs when you immerse yourself in something you love doing. The artist and the poet and the philosopher and the scientist become absorbed. The kind doctor becomes absorbed in her patient; the teacher becomes absorbed in his class presentation. The musician becomes absorbed in the fugue. When that happens, time stops and one lives in an ongoing present. One feels whole and at one with oneself. The little boy drawing with his pad on the floor, tongue sticking out from one side of his mouth, is a picture of absorption. He is not really paying attention. He is being absorbed. What is happiness? W. H. Auden answered the question quite simply: Happiness comes in absorption.

Happiness is losing yourself in something that you love and that will also, in all probability, come to benefit others. Happiness is working in an honorable vocation. Happiness is helping others, or protecting others, or enhancing the stock of humane knowledge. Happiness is absorption.

Sure, when you’re involved in absorbing tasks, you sometimes do have to “pay attention.” You’ve got to proofread the novel again; you’ve got to check and re-check your patient’s chart; you’ve got to clean your French horn or tune your guitar. The capacity to pay attention is critical to the life of absorption. Bertrand Russell thought it rather brutal to teach children how to sit still and focus. But he understood that in later life so much good could come from the capacity to make yourself present and quiet that he was willing to recommend that all teachers teach the arts of getting your legs under the desk and your hands on top. “Teach us,” as T. S. Eliot said, “to sit still.”

Russell also believed that learning the art of paying attention was a form of paying your dues. It was dues you paid in the interest of being able to possess the best that life offers, the capacity to be absorbed.

Connecting With the Real

If all you ask people to do is pay attention, they will almost inevitably rebel. Attention is an imprisoning of the mind. If you don’t put attention to a higher purpose—one associated with absorption—the mind will rebel and so will the heart. In our culture, I believe we ask too many people to pay attention too much of the time—and give them nothing back for it but sustenance. If you have to sit at a computer as a worker or a student from one end of the day to the other, doing tasks you take to be boring, you are likely to have a hard time paying attention. Your mind will wander; your fantasies will roam. Man cannot live on the bread and water of attention alone. Sent to the computer, the student must complete one boring task after the next, his mind locked into a tiny rectangular space. His attention will in time become deficient. Unless, of course, you juice him with drugs that lock him inside the mental prison from which he longs to escape. Later, he will take a job that strongly resembles his schooling: all attention, no absorption. His mind will wander. His boss and his teachers and maybe even his spouse will tell you that he has a flaw. He has a problem. He has a deficit. (Interesting how the idiom of cash leaks into and in some ways drives our current talk about mental focus. One “pays attention.” One possesses an attention “deficit.” Susan Sontag liked to say that she had “attention surplus disorder.”) Then there is talk about cultural crisis and failures of education, and about the damned Internet.

But those discussions may miss the point. Our culture has fewer and fewer opportunities for absorption. Not enough people care about the arts. Not enough of us quest for truth. The doctor’s office is an assembly line. The artist turns matters over to her assistant. The prof is busy fattening his resumé. But we have plenty of opportunities for attention, yes we do. Under the reign of the computer, jobs are more and more about attention: Get it right, pay attention to detail, fill out the chart, and fill it out again. Did I say opportunities to pay attention? No, they are compulsions and requirements. In short, if attention does not lead to absorption, or if there is little possibility of absorption in a given life, then there will be deficits of attention.

I am no medical doctor and cannot comment with anything like authority on the inception and proliferation of the condition called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD may well be an organic condition. It may well be biologically based. It may result from the stresses of a difficult childhood, or at least be exacerbated by such stresses. The best discussion of its possible (and possibly mixed) causes that I know of is by the Hungarian-born Canadian physician Gabor Maté, and he leaves the question open.

But I will go this far. If ADHD is in some measure a biological disorder, there may be social conditions that stimulate and aggravate it. When young children are denied the physical release of recess and unstructured play, when they are burdened prematurely with homework and excessive cognitive labor, are we not creating conditions in which many quite “normal” children are bound to appear—if not become—distracted, inattentive, and even hyperactive? When you ask people to do grinding, meaningless, boring work of the mind, often within the tiny confines of a computer screen, it is not surprising if their minds rebel. When you compel people to cut cane or plant cotton under a broiling sun, their bodies will eventually rebel. The mind, too, is a muscle. The wrong kind of pursuits maintained for too long will exhaust it. Exhausted, the body will function at half capacity: It will sputter and churn. Doesn’t the churning inattention ADHD visits on the mind remind one just a bit of the body’s clumsiness and fatigue when it is weary?

In The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt made a distinction between work and labor. Work is dignified and self-recreating; labor is demeaning and breaks the self down. There is work of the mind. There is labor of the mind.

But, some might counter, there is absorption in our culture. And plenty of it. Look at the face of the young man watching TV (during this, the purported golden age of television), the young woman at the movies, the kid in his basement playing his first-person shooter video game. Is this not absorption?

I think not. It pays, I believe, to distinguish between being absorbed and being mesmerized. Modern life avails one of plentiful opportunities to be mesmerized, enchanted, visually inebriated now: The condition is not hard to bring on. In a culture that asks us too often to “pay attention,” we need rest and release, and we can find both through the mesmerizing powers of current electronic culture. Ideally, paying attention should be rewarded by absorption, but when absorption isn’t found, or no one teaches us how to achieve it, then being mesmerized will have to do. Being mesmerized is all about wish fulfillment. It’s about becoming the soldier, becoming the knight, becoming the sports star, becoming the princess. It is a turning away from reality. To be absorbed is to intensify one’s connection with what is real with the hope of reshaping it for the better, if ever so slightly. The engaged and absorbed doctor wants health for his patient; the scientist wants to add to the stock of available knowledge; the true poet hopes to bring beauty and truth, pleasure and instruction, to her readers. These people are not cheering themselves on or inflating their sense of self. They are acting out of love for the world, and, in return, they receive one of life’s best gifts: simple absorption.