Saturday, 9 January 2016

Stop paying attention

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
(Simone Weil, French philosopher, 1909-1943)

Do you have New Year's resolutions? (Have you broken them yet?) Was one of them to spend less time on social media and more time paying attention to important things or people in the real world? If so, have you actually thought about what we mean by 'paying attention to'?

Attention requires a single-minded 'attending to' of something. It's been eroded and devalued by our increasing tendency to respect urgency, and to divide our attention between competing calls on it. We proudly claim to be good at multi-tasking, but that is really just attention-fragmenting. It can be useful if the tasks are not personally meaningful, but otherwise it can be quite detrimental. If you can do the washing up at the same time as working out a weekly schedule, that's great. Neither task deserves much of you and they need different types of attention.

It's in our engagement with other people, and with meaningful thought, including in books and other art forms, that full attention is needed. If you read a poem while wondering what to make for dinner, if you have a serious conversation with someone while trying to fillet a fish or untangle a knotted string of beads, you won't get the most out of the encounter. In the case of the conversation, the other person will also feel short-changed: you aren't paying enough attention. Notice the financial metaphors.

Some situations do demand a bit of contorted attention-bestowing. As readers, we need to attend to the book we are reading to get much out of it. As readers-to, which we often are when engaging with young children, we need to attend to the book and to the child's reception of it. We are both readers-of and readers-to at the same time. We are a conduit for the story (I will call it a story for simplicity, though it need not be a fiction book), but a conduit which adds to and changes the story.

When a bullet is shot from a gun, the gun barrel makes marks on the bullet, physical changes which ballistics experts can use to prove a particular bullet came from a particular gun. It's not a particularly child-friendly analogy, but in the same way when we act as a reader-to we put some of our own stamp on the story. The same story read by someone else is not actually quite the same story even if the same words are used. Another person might use different intonation, speak faster or slower, turn the pages at a different speed, and so on. We need to focus, as readers-to, on how we affect the story and how the child responds to it. We also need to be aware of other cues: are we shuffling impatiently, hurrying towards the end, wondering if the child is going to sleep yet, hoping we don't have to read the same story a tenth time?

Watch how the child attends to the story. They are engrossed, taken over by it, captivated. They give it their whole attention and don't want it to end - which is why they want it again and again. Do you notice something? We pay attention and the child gives attention. The child does not occupy a transactional space as we do. We have come to see time as a commodity and we 'pay attention' by giving time. But if we are paying it's not really giving, is it? And that's where we lose out. We pay attention like we pay bills. Paying has connotations of loss, resentment, exchange. Teachers tell children to 'pay attention'. You have to 'pay attention' when you are driving or get into trouble for driving without 'due care and attention'. 'Due' - there's that financial metaphor again.

Simone Weil's idea that attention is generosity is inspired. To give our attention to someone or something must be a selfless act. We give attention to the read-to child and to the story. When the child is captivated by the story, they won't be taking any notice of you. You are effectively invisible - the conduit, remember - just their pathway into the story. So you give this attention with no expectation of reward (though rewards will come, spontaneously) because you delight in the child's pleasure. And when the child (or anyone else) talks to us, we give them their attention if we are being genuine - we don't pay it.

It would be disingenuous to say that we get nothing back from giving attention. We reap immense rewards - but it is not a transaction. As in any exchange, you don't get back what you give. You give your time and your engagement. You will be rewarded with connection, satisfaction, the good feeling that you have made someone happy, and - in the end - with a child who is also able to give attention to otheres. The read-to child relishes the story because it is both a story and a gift of attention. It validates the child, shows you care enough and like them enough to give your time and attention. You give it, too, when you listen to the child and don't dismiss their worries or hurry them along.

Being readers-to is a way of being attention-givers. It's also a bounded way, and that is useful, too. The story comes to an end, we leave the magical kingdom, we each return to our own lands. Babies are attention-junkies. They need attention almost all the time in order to survive. As they grow, we wean them off it, leaving them - if all goes well - able both to cherish the attention we give them and to give attention to others, but also able to sustain themselves.

So my New Year resolution will be to try to do less multi-tasking, to give my attention - all of it - to whatever I am attending to and to nothing else. I think I will get as much done, perhaps more: I may well read Mog's Box an extra 40 or 50 times.

Anne Rooney
Latest book: not even sure. I'm not paying attention to the publishing schedules.


Joan Lennon said...

A thought-provoking post - thanks, Anne!

Pippa Goodhart said...

I hadn't thought about that money-related language that we use without really thinking about it. Thank you for a really good post.