Recently I had an occasion to hear Father Lawrence, a Redemptorist Priest at the Holy Ghost Church, Bangalore, India. He began his homily with a rhetorical question — ‘Why do I need to persist in prayer?’ He answered the question by saying that, ‘Prayer keeps my attention focussed on God’. I reflected on the thought and particularly on the word ‘attention’. Almost, every day my husband and I rattle off prayers mechanically without paying much attention either to the words or to God.
The word ‘attention’ is used in many ways:
At assemblies in school, the PE master gets the children to focus by a few repetitions of ‘Attention’ — ‘Stand at ease’
Students are often reminded to ‘pay attention’ in class or to a lecture.
We require to pay attention at work, in the kitchen, while playing, while driving or for that matter any activity.
I need to pay attention to the signals emanating from my body, and to my finances.
Pay attention to my spouse, my children, my family — and the list can go on.
What then is ‘attention’?
It is the act or power of fixing one’s mind upon something or someone to the exclusion of all other stimuli — in other words it is concentrating by shutting out other activities or information to devote more of our mental resources to what one wants to focus on.
Quite tough, isn’t it? This paying attention!! What makes it difficult?
Online life has now become a substitute for real life. The pandemic showed us the advantages and disadvantages. Parents demand an online Parent Teacher Meeting as they are so very busy. A meeting I would generally have attended physically is now online. Do I really get to pay attention to the eyes, the smile and the body language that would tell me so much more!
Virtual interaction has taken over human interaction.
Tim Wu (2017) Author of the book ‘The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside our Heads’ characterises modern man as ‘homo distractus’, a species of ever shorter attention span known for compulsively checking his devices.
There are other factors that are calling out loudly for attention which in itself is acceptable. For example, in our professional lives, all of us have to work for our living. So what is wrong with that? The issue is whether my professional life is affecting my personal life or vice-versa, thus affecting my ability to focus attention on what is important at the given time and place.
Reduced attention is also linked to impulses to compulsively shop or buy. All addictions focus attention on the ‘addictive’ at the cost of far more important matters.
There are consequences to these causes of lack of attention or selective attention — spouses and family are neglected, friendships can dwindle, health can suffer. Children can go down in their studies and react in manners that can be heart breaking.
Let me share a couple of recent examples –
‘X’ a young man had been admitted to an Engineering college. After a few months of attending college, he stopped going to class. He left home every day at the right time, reached the college and sat quietly, alone on campus. After a month of non-attendance, the parents were informed.
Now, for some questions for the parents:
Did you look at your son as he left for college and came back?
Did he wish you on his way out and in?
Did you observe his body language?
Did you talk and have conversations with him about anything and everything? Especially about friendships and college anecdotes and lecturers?
Did you share of your day?
The only redeeming feature was that the parents realized their failures and handled the situation and their son with understanding and love.
This is the other incident –
The school announced a Talents Day. Mother informed the teacher that her son would dance. The next day she said, he would sing. On the actual day, the child refused to dance or sing as his mother had not told him what to do. A child who was confident at the beginning of the year was now indecisive.
The first example is a case of an ‘Uninvolved Parenting Style’ lacking emotional support.
The second is a case of ‘Negative Attention’. Such children or adults can be anxious and scared and feel bad about themselves thinking that they are not acceptable the way they are.
Looking around us we see signs of lack of attention across the age spectrum by attention seeking behaviour.
- Disruptive behaviour
- Frequently interrupting others and talking out of turn. This can be observed even on group chats on WhatsApp — Conversation Narcissists who have to take away attention from others and draw it to themselves in a clever, likeable manner.
- Some become possessive, clingy, demanding, aggressive and destructive.
There are also other types, which need not necessarily be attention seeking but something to take note of in seniors. Poor hygiene and unkempt clothes. I remember reading this in one of Dr. Atul Gawande’s books. Take a look at an old person’s feet and if in poor condition, it is a sign of lack of attention as the elderly find it difficult to reach their feet.
‘Attention’ is crying out for attention.
I now recall another important statement from the homily — ‘Attention is the greatest gift that one can give to somebody’.
Who is this somebody?
I think I need to start with myself. I need to give attention to myself, my body, my mind, my heart and my soul.
I am not going to elaborate on this as there is an information overload about these areas. What each one of us needs to do is to take out our ‘toolkit’ and start working on it.
I am worthy of attention first and not last.
And then I need to pay attention to my near and dear ones, for instance our spouses. I believe even though I do not have any statistics that a number of marriages are breaking up due to lack of attention. Instead let’s look into the eyes for then the message is, you matter to me, you are a worthy part of my life.
The children — need attention of the right kind. Attention is your time — I need to dare to care.
I once told a father who was ranting about how hard he worked for the family and the reward he got was poor performance and poor marks. I told him that he was working for himself as it gave him a ‘high’ like a drug. Shocked, he asked for permission to leave the room, returned 15 minutes later and said that I was right.
And above all to our Creator, as Fr. Lawrence brought out so effectively
To sum up and put ‘attention’ in perspective let me share a couple of quotes:
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Simone Weil
“Give whatever you are doing and whoever you are with the ‘gift’ of your attention.’ Jim Rohn
Let’s close with Paulo Coelho, “You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one; each day brings a miracle of its own. It’s just a matter of paying attention to this miracle.”
What is your miracle today?