The lost art of attention (and how maybe we’re all screwed)

To pay attention to another person is to be deliberate. It’s to say, unapologetically, I’m here. I’m listening. You matter more to me in this moment than whatever else I could be doing (or if not, I’ll try to make it seem that way).

To pay attention to the world is to be consciously bowled over, smitten. Dismayed quite a bit, sure, but completely engaged.

To pay attention to yourself is to admit that there’s only so much racing from reality one person can do. There’s only so long you can keep the door of distractions and extraneous crap closed, without peering at what’s really going on behind it. (And yes, I know it’s like Monica’s secret junk closet back there.)

Simone Weil shook something in me by saying, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” But she died in 1943. So while she might not have been talking about this specific society and how social media is screwing us all over (and clearly our propensity to not pay the utmost attention has been a thing for a while), I do reckon that what she said remains pertinent.

My friend reposted a brilliant piece on Facebook the other day:

“Pssst. I like the photos of your lunch. And your baby. And your dog or cat or bunny or snake. I like your selfies and your crafts. I like seeing your house renovation and your garden. I like to see your book and the article you got published. I like seeing the photo of that view from that place you visited. I like to hear about your brand new niece and the amazing milkshake you had and that matte lipstick you tried. I like to see the cocktail you had or the beautiful stained glass in that new church you’re going to. I’m glad you’ve been sober for a while. I’m glad you’re working out more. I enjoy seeing your face, sweaty and pink after that 5k. I like your selfies with make-up. I like your selfies with no make-up when you’re wearing those comfy new PJs. I’m glad you voted. I like your new haircut. I’m glad you’re sharing. I like it. I like you. I like your lunch.”

That’s appreciation in its purest form. Letting people share the big and the small stuff. Letting people be happy. Letting people notice their own happiness and exclaim or murmur through their online sharing, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” (kudos, Kurt Vonnegut).

I love when I see snaps of my friend’s legs on a watermelon beach towel, because it means she’s contented enough to document it. I love when I get the lowdown on my mate’s Parkrun, because it means he’s proud enough to post about it. I love when my former schoolmate and now faraway Facebook-friend shares pictures of her kid on his first day at school, because it means she’s pleased as punch and wants everyone to know it. But, to go back to our mate Simone, there comes a point when all that glad-feeling and appreciation detract from my actual life, which is happening in this actual moment. I’m just not paying attention.

I look down to double-tap a stranger’s selfie, and when I look up, it’s past 12 on a schoolnight and tomorrow’s mood is already shot. Or six months have passed and I still haven’t pitched that website or posted my portfolio or got any further ahead in the ways I’m pining for.

Also? It takes a saint to always always see other people’s selfies, belfies, lunches, brunches, performances and publications in an entirely graceful way. To always think, “I see you, I’m thrilled for you, and I’m sure as hell not comparing myself to you…” I’ve been nearing overkill and – FYI, this isn’t very PC/feminist/ “artists must support other artists” of me – I’ve been getting jealous. Mad, even. Resentful. Full of bitterness towards people I don’t even know, who are presumably super-nice and lovely and probably insecure, too.

I need to stop watching other people and pay attention to myself. To what’s happening right now, that I can touch and see and feel. To the rainstorm on the skylight and Santigold on Spotify. To the begging in my belly and the mania in my chest – the wanting of more. To how I’m using my time and whether it makes me feel tip-top (spoiler: it doesn’t).

So as a generous gift from me to me, I deleted the Instagram app from my phone on Monday, just for a bit, in an effort to quit comparing and take up true attention-giving as a serious sport. We’re up to day four of no scrolling now. There’s been no viewing of other people’s daily moments of frustration or joy, no being led by the pull to capture my commute-coffee, no constant exposure to how everyone else is crushing it. Because that’s the thing. A boss brunch gets a double-tap, but it doesn’t punch me in the gut in the same way as news that someone’s bossing it in their career. The punctual peeks inside other people’s routines are nice; it feels like I’m going about their days with them. But while I’m living life vicariously rather than literally and comparing everyone else’s notable moves with my own, it’s too noisy for me to hear what’s actually going on.

And if I want to pay true attention, it’s got to be quiet, even if the quiet does expose the ugly-as-sin contents of my closet of crap.

I’ve been running from the junk-closet for ages, filling my outer life with the coolest things and then showing them off online. Getting caught up in the fake competition of it all. Being seduced by the bright sensations over the broad ones, never letting myself go too deep because when you’re busy adjusting the saturation of a 2D snapshot on a smartphone, everything can only be surface-level. It’s harder to focus, harder to decide on things (and god knows I have enough trouble with that as it is), harder to go full-pelt at life, which is what I want to spend my days doing, always. Social media can shrink me. It condenses the most mind-boggling of sunset views, which genuinely made me gooey inside, to a flat photo that someone flicks past as they sit on a train and which only becomes worth something if they bless it with a ‘like.’ It weakens my voice as I try to make it heard among everyone else’s, and I just want to feel like I have conviction.

I’m not expecting miracles from simply deleting an iPhone app, but as Jonathan Safran Foer said, “One needn’t believe in miracles to experience them. But one must be present for them.”