First a riddle:
I am hidden yet always present. I am your most precious possession; yet I’m being stolen and you don’t even realize it. What am I?*
While in college I had the opportunity to travel abroad. On one stop, we visited a famous marketplace that had several hundred small stores. One focused on luggage, another had watches, another jewelry, and on and on – all of it knock-off brands. Who doesn’t want a $10 Rolex?! The sales people knew enough English (and Russian) to make the sale. Most important though was to get your attention, often by yelling. The person who could grab your attention first would make the most money. One particular guy – a seller of jeans – said hurriedly to everyone, “Hello, pants??!” To us, it felt like he thought our names were “pants.” From then on, for years among our group, “Hello, pants!” became the phrase for getting attention. 🙂
If you want money, the secret is to first get their attention. To sell items, you must get the attention of a buyer. To raise money for a non-profit, you must get the attention of potential donors. Even to get a job, you must get the attention of an employer. Money often brings more money, because money grabs attention. Your attention is your greatest asset and your most valuable possession.
Because attention is the door to making money, everyone is working to steal your attention. Today I want to reflect on the important question: “What should we pay attention to?”
To begin, I’ll admit this is a big question that no answer will ever truly satisfy. But it’s worse if if we don’t ask it. Here are 5 reflections:
1. We should pay attention to people. Homo Sapiens (that’s us) is a hyper-social species; our DNA propels us toward connection to others. Christians have the same belief. We are created in God’s image, who is triune in nature, so we are designed by God to be communal creatures, created for community.
In now one of the most watched TED talks (seen above), Robert Waldinger makes a similar point. If you want to be happy, if you want to live longer, if you want to have a good life, he says, “Focus on your relationships!” Leaning in to good quality relationships is without question one of the best things to give your attention.
2. We should pay attention to the loners. Jesus was odd, particularly regarding his focus on outsiders. Whether that’s a rich lonely guy in a tree (Zaccheus), a prostitute crying over his feet (Lk 7), the lonely woman at the well (John 4), or the numerous lepers and demon possessed he healed, Jesus paid unusual attention to those on the margins of society. Some of his harshest words were reserved for those who paid no attention to the hungry, imprisoned, thirsty, and sick (Matt. 25). What that looks like is another conversation, but for those of us striving to be like Jesus, we ought to make “loners” a priority.
3. We should pay attention to beauty, goodness, and truth. I stumbled upon this idea, sheesh, almost a decade ago, here and here. But the general idea is that if we are created in the image of God, we will find our true selves in pursuing (i.e. paying attention to) the core qualities of God, namely beauty, goodness/justice, and truth. Connected to that, like God our creator, being creative is a wonderful thing that brings life, which for me means to pay attention to art, and writing, and music, and building stuff, and trying to care for plants.
4. We should pay attention to the present moment. So often my mind is somewhere different than my body. Maybe I’m planning the next thing I want to say, or trying to figure that next chore on the to-do list, or I’m daydreaming about an adventure to Iceland. There is great wisdom in learning to be in the present moment. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand (aka right now)!” “And lo, I am with you always” (present tense). And when we think about it, we can never really be anywhere but the present. Be where you are.
5. We ought to pay attention to where we want to go. Jesus said, “Seek and you will find.” Why? Because we become that which we seek. A person wanting to learn electricity will apprentice another electrician. A person wanting to be a good lawyer will read and follow another lawyer they admire. A personal wanting to increase their retirement portfolio will often read some advice from Warren Buffett. We move toward that which we focus our attention on. So identify your role models and learn from them, giving them your attention.
So there you have it. Some thoughts on what to pay attention to. I’m interested in what you’d add?
What steals our attention?
We tend to think of morals as a duality, either right or wrong, black or white. This, I think, is (usually) a mistake. “Is it wrong to eat ice cream?” is a poor question because it creates a false dichotomy. “When is best to eat ice cream?” is a better question. What follows is an attempt to reflect on when it’s best “to eat ice cream” – it might frustrate some of you. These aren’t black and white issues, so take it all with a grain of salt. My hope is to wrestle with the ideas, not to judge your character.
As a broad generalization, I try to avoid:
1. The News. For about 3 months, I’ve taken an indefinite fast from the news. Headlines are mostly driven by what grabs attention (i.e. what makes money), which means they are skewed toward sensationalism, novelty and fear. As one person said, “News is to the brain what sugar is to the body.” Is sugar bad? No, but too much will kill you. A thought-provoking article (in the Guardian!) argues that the news is misleading, overly negative, bad for your mental health, mostly irrelevant and time consuming. How often does the news positively affect your life? Further, reading the news can give the false sense of doing good, while in truth accomplishes nothing. With all that said, investigative journalism is the bedrock for a healthy democracy. So I am conflicted. When is it best to pay attention to the news?
2. Entertainment. There is little doubt that things that are entertaining are often a mixture of joy and beauty, not to mention great story-telling. Plus, entertainment is the common go-to for unwinding after a long day. All great things! Nevertheless, for me, most TV shows toy with my emotions. There’s the build up and constant wonder at what will happen next?! And then the cliff hanger. On repeat. They make money by holding our attention, so is it any surprise we keep coming back for more? Mere consumption dulls the minds. Our hearts long for relaxation, and deep joy, and beauty, and connection, and we often turn to entertainment for these things. Does entertainment satisfy or is it like candy, leaving us wanting more? Where do we turn for joy, beauty, and relaxation?
3. Screens. I spend about 3 and half hours staring at the screen in my pocket, everyday, and another 3 or 4 hours staring at the screen at work, and then now however-many-more hours staring at a computer screen at home. Surfing the web is like channel surfing – again, it’s like candy. Screens occupy an exorbitant amount of my attention. Which means I have that much less attention to give to the things I actually do care about, like those I love, my goals, learning, and all the other stuff. So I want to recognize my hypocrisy without shame and press on.
4. This last point deviates from the candy/ice cream analogy, but it’s important. Social constructs take perhaps the largest amount of our attention. Money is one of the best examples. It is something we (as society) have agreed to give value but does not actually exist in nature. It’s created purely from collective agreement. Other examples are school and jobs. Learning is wonderful, but school often is not. Work is an integral part of life, but jobs often stink. In short, most of your stress comes from social constructs, which occupy most of your attention. To transcend these pressures, I believe is a key to spiritual growth.
As always, I’m interested in your feedback!
Key questions for reflection:
- What should we focus our attention on?
- What keeps us from doing that?
- How do we care for the “loners?”
- How do you explore truth, beauty, and goodness?!
- How do you consume news? Or stay informed? Any recommendations?
*Answer for the riddle*: “Time” and “heart” are two good ones, but I believe the best answer is “attention.” Curious if you came up with a better answer.