Choosing to pay attention

These where some memorable lines in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest:

You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. . . . How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.

In the novel, the context of these lines are a conversation about competitive tennis. But of course they’re ultimately about life. Like it or not we’re all in the great Game, and there is no opting out. We can only choose to try and learn from our mistakes and, more importantly, from the mistakes of others.

As the experience of life shapes us…and, at times breaks us…our task is about “being conscious and aware enough to choose what [we] pay attention to and to choose how [we] construct meaning from experience.”* This is how we shape ourselves. It’s very hard. It can take a lifetime. But no one said the Game would be easy. It can crush you. But we’re better off to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep playing on, to pay attention…and to consciously choose.

In Front of One’s Nose

George_Orwell_press_photo
George Orwell

In one of Orwell’s essays he writes, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I read this essay years ago and this quote still hits me at times when I’m struggling to pay attention to the course of a discussion or observe some interaction or event. By the way, we say “pay attention” for a reason, because there is effort involved. It “costs” us something to be present and focused in the now. My lovely wife will sometimes remind me that I tend to run a deficit in my attention budget. So I have some work to do myself.

Anyway, Orwell recognized that most people may look, but they struggle to see what lies right in front of them. Of course we all know a good portion of our fellow travelers who simply don’t want to see—because they might not like what they see! It might weaken their web of beliefs to see things differently, which would disturb their world and potentially overturn a settled opinion. And so we beat on, boats against the current, having those utterly pointless arguments with friends and relatives for whom critical reflection and a change of mind is simply not even a remotely possible cognitive event. We’re better off talking about the weather instead.

It has taken me many years to realize that most people aren’t interested in a search for truth…or beauty, or goodness. Heck, some aren’t even mildly interested in reaching a sensible position. But I got it. Many of us just want to feel comfortable, because that type of higher level, deeper thinking, can be, as my wife likes to say, “a bit much.” But I’ll note here that the “in front of your nose” type thinking/awareness is more about attentiveness to subtleties and nuances in the moment.

Experience is multilayered, and its influence on our thinking and actions is often unconscious. Orwell might remind us that’s why propaganda, well orchestrated, can be so effective. This is why history is crowded with groups of people that, at times, have believed monstrous lies. If you’ve been alive long enough you’ve probably come to the same conclusion I have that people aren’t primarily rational, they’re emotional. And that’s what moves them. The trick, of course, is to get to people early on during their educations and try to emotionally invest the importance, goodness, and benefit of seeking truth…faith, hope, & love. As William James said, truth can be realized by its “cash-value in experiential terms.” Simply put: The truth pays.

So try to remember Orwell’s words as you go about your day and keep reminding yourself to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you. You might be surprised at what you see and learn.