On Paying Attention

Recently I picked up Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life for the first time, and I ended up returning the library book and buying my own copy to underline and dog-ear and keep on the shelf for years of encouragement and reference. It's a book about writing, but it's really a book about paying attention, which isn't quite what I expected. She talks at length about the role of great writers, which is to tell you something true about the world or human existence by capturing the essence of it (or a scene or character or setting or experience) through details. And writing details requires a gift for collecting details, which Anne would tell you comes from paying attention. This got me thinking: what would happen if all of us, writers and non-writers alike, started paying better attention?

In 2015, not many of us are good at paying attention. It's more likely that we're all in a state of constant partial attention, as Linda Stone has dubbed it; that is to say, we are always thinking just a little bit about a lot of things. But it's not to say that we are actually noticing things around us. It's more like concentrated distraction. 

Now, I'm not talking about "attention span," which everyone in the Twitter Age seems to be both lacking and worrying about their kids lacking. Attention span is a matter of context: what is keeping your attention, or not. For instance, a kid might have a terrible attention span during a monotone, mind-numbing explanation of how to fill in the bubbles on a standardized test, but they might suddenly develop a remarkable attention span while listening to a fabulously handsome history teacher give a hilarious, dramatized telling of the Trojan Horse Problem. I consider myself to have a pretty good attention span when it comes to great violin playing, excellent design and food, and fascinating conversation, but a very short attention span for organized sports, discussions about baby drool, and Philip Glass. Everyone has a pretty good attention span for things they are interested in, and we can extend our attention spans by expanding our interest and cultivating patient curiosity.

But "paying attention" is different, though related; it's a meta-concept, a way of living. It's a question of how wide open your eyes are. How much you look around. How much you notice. How often you look up. The things you pick up on. What you overhear, and what you make of it.

Little kids are great at paying attention. They notice everything (that is, everything they want to notice). Sam can discern the noise of an airplane far in the distance before it even registers in my brain. He has telescopic vision for spotting Cheerios boxes. He can sight a golden retriever from three blocks away. Tiny kids pay attention doggedly. They don't let go of things they want to know about. They persist. I think we're all born with that, and I think it has something to do with physical survival (imagine yourself locked in a creepy, abandoned old house, in near-perfect darkness. You will notice EVERYTHING: every creak, every squeak. Crisis, and the need for learning about our environment in order to survive--which tiny kids do--puts us on the alert), as well as a huge dose of unadulterated, delighted curiosity for its own sake, which has more to do with the survival of our soul and how we're made to interact with the world. But at some point, that dogged attention deteriorates. We stop persevering in our interest. Even if something does catch our eye, we shrug it off and move on, distracted by the clock, or the pedestrians behind us, or the fact that someone might look at us funny if we freeze mid-stride in the middle of the sidewalk to stare at something or simply to think. 

The more you look, the more you notice. It takes time, and a little energy, both of which are always in short supply. We don't invest them because we forget about the payoff.

The real reward for paying attention comes in two forms: an immediate result and a long-term transformation. In the short-term, we'll get the pleasure of a cool fighter jet spotted high in the sky, or a friendly face to wave at, or a word of encouragement for a friend who needed someone to notice that they were sad, a shared grin with a stranger, or an inward chuckle with yourself over what you happened to spy in the grocery line. Those tiny things can make all the difference in a day. But then there are the intangible long-term effects, which is really what we're after. Maybe we will just become slightly more curious, engaged people who are better at chasing big ideas or projects as far as we possibly can, and listening to other people's stories with more engagement. Maybe our souls will be just the tiniest bit more alive to the world around us, less likely to coast by in long days of lethargy, more likely to perk up at an interesting sound, pick up a new book, or trip over one of the potential adventures that are lurking in camouflage all around us. Heck, maybe we'll be more employable for it, because we are better at asking questions, looking for answers, and engaging them moment. Or maybe not. Maybe we'll just understand the world a little better--drawing connections, seeing patterns--and also realize how little we really understand.

A last word from Anne Lamott: “There is ecstasy in paying attention... Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that--the details, the nuance, what is. If you start to look around, you will start to see.”

And that is a much more interesting way to spend those four minutes in the checkout line.