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 the 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 it requires effort. It “costs” us something to be present and focused. 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, which would disturb their world and potentially overturn some settled opinion they cherish. 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 were never on the table. Don’t waste your time with those types. You’re better off talking about the weather instead.
But I should note here that the “in front of your nose” type of thinking and awareness Orwell is referring to is more about the attention paid to the subtleties and nuances of the moment.
A lot of the forces that shape who we are operate outside our consciousness awareness. Trying to realize these forces in operation is the point. 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 may have finally accepted the fact that people aren’t primarily rational, they’re primarily emotional. Emotions are largely what moves them. The trick, of course, is to get to people early on in their lives (older folks are usually ossified mentally) and try to emotionally invest in them the importance of things like civic duty, a work ethic, learning, intelligence, goodness, and the spiritual benefits of truth…faith, hope, & love.
So try to remember Orwell’s words as you go about your day and keep reminding yourself to pay close attention to what’s happening right in front of your nose. You might be surprised at what you see and learn.