Can I have your attention?
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Simone Weil
. . .
Each year at this time there is usually one commencement address that stands out among the others. This year, for me, it was Jonathan Safran Foer's Middlebury College address. You can watch the address
or read portions of it in the
. The part that struck me most was about attention. Listen to this excerpt.
Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention — even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.
Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
THE problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.
. . .
It's really heavy, right? Even if it's not you who are guilty of preferring diminished substitutes and giving real interactions less attention, it's our society, it's the world our children are walking into and the energy we are steeped in everyday. I think about how many times I have said, "just a minute" to my girls as I have replied to a text, typed off a quick email, or composed a caption for a picture. I am pretty conscious about putting the phone away to focus and engage, but I am a work from home mom, with kids at home a lot, and the balance of the two is extremely difficult to find. And in a hurried world where texting or communicating in the comments of a public forum are becoming the norm, it's hard not to play along.
So how do we move ahead in a world that's connecting us together but is also pulling us apart?
I think it has to be about balance and about valuing personal interaction. It has to be about taking the extra step to think, say, converse, and feel. We need to give attention and teach attention. We need to hold tight to our emotionality, bearing unscripted interactions that have the power to unhinge us, but also bring about moments of clarity and richness that only face to face communication can do. It's about standing guard over our time, over chance encounters, and unhurried conversations with friends or strangers. It's about paying attention. Really deeply paying attention.
Foer ends with this, "We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die."
I'd love to know what you think. xx