The value of attentiveness January 24, 2014Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society.
Tags: attention, meditation, morality
As an introvert, I value time alone. I get overwhelmed by too much social activity. And yet, I love social activity often, especially with people I like and love. I mention this as a disclaimer for what will follow, because I am aware that my values are derived from these facts.
Growing up, I attended a Quaker school. Part of our routine, at a Quaker establishment of education, was meeting for worship; a silent time of reflection and potential personal communion with some god once a week. As a person who is easily distracted, it was useful to be exposed to and forced to get used to being quiet and inactive for a little while. It may be a post hoc rationalization, I know, but I have come to view the ability to do so as a sign of good character. I believe this because I’m generally happier the less I am distracting myself. I’m happier when I spend some time, each day, doing essentially nothing. Not all day, mind you, or even for a long time. Usually, taking 5-15 minutes now and then to just sit, not thinking about anything in particular and just relaxing without podcasts, TV, etc in the background is a means to allow my mind to calm and to unconsciously process perspective.
But more than those moments of quiet, I value attentiveness and the related skills of empathy and sympathy. I value these things because they expose us to parts of our minds, behavior, strengths and weaknesses contains within us in ways that we are likely to be blind to when we distract ourselves constantly. I know, I know…I’m starting to sound like that tropish old, grouchy man who complains that modern technology is destroying the world. No, it’s not that, it’s something more universal than that. That trope of the old grouchy Luddite is based on an ancient struggle for a balance between introspection and having to be active in order to survive being translated into concerns about technology.
I believe that there is a lot that happens in our brain that we are not aware of. Consciousness, whatever it’s nature, is only a small part of what our brain is doing at any given time, and if you have ever gone away from thinking about a problem to have the solution seem to come out of nowhere later, then I think you know what I mean by saying that when we are (consciously) thinking, we are still thinking. And while I don’t have any evidence on hand at the moment, I believe that when we distract ourselves constantly, we are unable to effectively introspect and process parts of ourselves which might be scary, unwanted, or apparently boring. Further, by glossing over those things I think we miss much about ourselves we could learn from.
It is for this reason that I have a fair amount of respect for meditation, at least insofar as it is practiced in a secular manner (the way Sam Harris advocates). It is also the reason why I have some affinity to the side of religion, as it has popped up through history, which tends towards the mystical or esoteric. Whether it’s wisdom literature, philosophical introspection, etc I am able to see the importance of this aspect of religion’s role in history because I have a similar set of values and internal attributes as the various writers I have loved from religious and philosophical traditions. For me, reading a good writer is like peeking inside someone else’s mind for a little while. I’m less interested in their beliefs, conclusions, etc as I am in the process, tone, and emotional environment of their thinking.
There is something essential, in my opinion, about being able to merely be without effort, sometimes. Other times, it is important to be silly, irreverent, ecstatic, and very busy, especially when their is shit to do. Because I’m an introvert, I work most often on my skills at being social. I work to overcome my fear of embarrassment, rejection, and (probably the worst of all) allowing my own emotional environment to awaken the parts of me I am trying to transcend (like defensiveness, when disagreeing with someone). My weakest point (as many people know) is probably my poor ability to communicate my needs and desires well, especially in the face of other people who have little problem making their preferences known. It’s, frankly, intimidating. For those who are good at making preferences and desires known, this can be frustrating in terms of being around me (both because I have trouble communicating my desires and because I will sometimes resent your ability to do so easily). Where others will ask (which often feels like a demand to me), I will rely on social context cues. This, for me and others, is inefficient and frustrating. It is, however, where my strengths lie, and is as a result of thinking that way most of my life t I am very good at reading those cues, where some people are not.
Those cues seem so obvious to me, but not to most people (Ginny will attest to that). It’s why I’m working on communicating better, while also trying to show how and why the ability to read cues is an important skill as well. That is because in the debate about whether it is better to communicate or to have a set of skills designed to make such communication generally unnecessary (some things will always be necessary to communicate overtly) is wrong-headed, in my view. Yes, we should all communicate effectively, but we should also be learning how to be more self-aware, and that self-awareness is the result of the ability to pay more attention to what is happening around you. That can only be done if we are not distracting ourselves. Because if people are better at being attentive and aware, those of us who are struggling to communicate well will be less stressed out about communicating, because we won’t have to as often.
But, as usual, such conflicts are the result of the social interactions of differing value sets. Never attribute malice where simple laziness, inattentiveness, and misunderstanding are a better explanation. All too often disagreements are about values which are incompatible, like when people think they are arguing about the same thing, when they aren’t.
To use an partially relevant example which Wes used, earlier today:
I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view).
Here’s the thing about this; I agree with him. His argument is sound, he has every right to use his phone whenever he wants to and he has no obligation to interact with people around him. But when I read this, my mind sort of winced, because from where I’m standing this approach is missing a larger question, one which trumps this question in some ways. Now, granted Wes is answering a specific question; whether it is acceptable to use your smartphone in a social situation, where doing so might offend people. Another disclaimer, I will grant that I have a visceral feeling of guilt when using my phone too much in social situations, which I admit is not an argument for not doing so, but it is the reason that I don’t tend to do it unless I have some significant business to attend to with people who are elsewhere.
But the other reason I don’t find this question particularly interesting or compelling is because I would have addressed another issue before I even got to that question. Insofar as I might disagree with Wes’s conclusion has nothing to do with consent or obligation in social situations. For me, the consent issue here is secondary to the larger issue–the larger meta-value–of whether I should be distracting myself in such a way at all generally, whether in a social situation or not. I agree that I don’t morally owe people my attention (in most cases), so I can choose to, without morally infringing on anyone by using my phone while around them. They may not like me for doing so, but maybe I’m OK with that. But because I value being attentive, I won’t use my phone in such situations because the attention I invest has the long term consequence of allowing me to be more sensitive, and fosters self-awareness which I value quite highly. Here, the moral question is not whether I’m bothering the other people right now, but it is a strategy I employ to be a better person generally in the long run, by being generally more attentive.
Wes might argue, as I have heard him say, that he’s not interested in the social activity physically around him, so he’s opting for the social activity through technology. And yes, that is a fine argument to make. And in some cases I will do the same. But what I keep struggling with is the problem of missing on the beautiful subtleties of things around me. For me to be open to the things which bring me real joy, fulfillment, and teach me not only about the world, but also myself, I need to often be willing to be attentive fully to my thoughts, feelings, the room I’m in, and the thoughts and feelings of others around me. And all too often, people (myself included) are merely distracting themselves with their smartphone, rather than using it as an alternate means to being attentive to the world.
S, while I will conclude, at least tentatively, that is is sometimes fine to be on your smartphone in social situations, especially where it fosters relationships with people who are elsewhere. But the question I keep wondering is whether people who are almost always on the smartphones (computers, TVs, etc) in social situations or not are doing so to foster and maintain actual relationships, or is it a habitual means to perpetually distract oneself? Insofar as technology is a means to establish and maintain community and relationships, I think it’s great. Where it doesn’t do that, I would prefer to minimize it’s presence in my own life (I’m not so good at that sometimes). Also, I recognize that there are legitimate times when distracting oneself is a helpful strategy, especially when it comes to things like clinical depression or other mental health concerns. There are certainly times when I need to distract myself to prevent the spiral of insecurity, fear, and anger which is a perpetual concern, but I can’t allow this to be an excuse to always distract myself. My concern is the apparent inability to put the phone away, turn the TV off, stop playing the game, etc for a little while and just stop. The inability to be bored, patient, and not entertained is a good skill, and I believe it helps us be more compassionate, empathetic, and (in the long run) moral people.
If I were more attentive to the world around me, rather than allow myself the easy distractions, I would be generally happier, I think. And I suspect that people generally following that advice would lead to better things as well. I would also write more, which is also good for me, psychologically and emotionally, since I would be thinking more. There are aspects of myself that I really love, and they too often get buried by the miasma of distraction. That me is attentive, affectionate, and more social. I want my family, friends, and lovers to keep encouraging me to be that person more, and I encourage others to consider doing the same.