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

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.