ATTENDING TO LIES – THE ORIGINAL DARK WEB

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I confess there’s been a gap in my postings as an attending metaphysician, because one of my dearest friends took issue with my previous post, stating that she voted for Trump and did not wish to discuss politics with me in any way, ever. She did not explain why she voted for him, because that would have meant breaking her newly made rule not to discuss politics. All I could do was wonder why she, a deeply religious person and close reader of Scripture, could have made such a decision. Out of respect for her new prohibition, I did not ask. But I gave it much thought.

That said, I believe this admirable friend put aside some of the essential values of her faith to vote for Trump. The following thoughts are not meant to debate her decision, rather to identify some aspects of what might lead to her regret it. Then I will offer a personal experience of a pathological lier less charismatic than Trump but still charming .

The Book of Wisdom, strangely, remarks that wisdom never makes its way into a crafty soul (Wis.1:14). Why would being crafty, which requires intelligence, prevent anyone from becoming wise? This attending metaphysician guesses it has to do with deceiving or obstructing those who pay sincere attention to what others says or do, and other matters of importance.

Why do we pay close attention to anything? It is said that curiosity may be our strongest human impulse, more powerful than hunger or sex. That may be a survival mechanism given to us by evolution. One thing seems clear: paying close attention may be the only way we acquire wisdom. For sure it’s how we learn anything that sticks. Close attention includes studying a subject, practicing a skill, observing others who’ve mastered skills or know more about things we want to know. And always, like the proverbial devil in the details, any process of close attention is obstructed or made futile by the insertion of false or unverified information.

In the world of education it is a grave offense to provide unverified or unattributed  information, misleading others in their quest for knowledge. This applies, without being formally stated, to any field taken seriously—be it farming, sewing, nuclear physics, plumbing, medicine, local or national government, beekeeping, whatever. In Scripture there is a commandment against bearing false witness—an ancient rule initially applied to legal testimony—whose implications remain strong for practically all aspects of human interaction.

After the 2016 Presidential election much of our country, and the world at large, got a taste of what can go wrong when distorted attention–by false information, anger, fear, and a sense felt by segments of the population of their innate superiority to others–can lead to dangerous choices in a country’s leadership. Fear, in response to genuine threats, is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger at clear moral wrongs. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance—enemies of clear, focused attention—are factors that can derail whatever is civilized and life-affirming in our shared culture and democracy.

At time people have to lie to survive, to avoid being captured or killed. In personal relationships we sometimes lie to spare others the pain of unpleasant truths. We also lie to be well liked by others, the so-called white lies—compliments on hairdos, clothing, people looking younger than ever when they’ve clearly aged, and the like. Too often we lie (exaggerate, stretch the truth, make unproven claims) to succeed: to make a sale, close a deal, get a job, impress someone we’re attracted to. And nowadays it’s becoming disturbingly obvious that people who crave attention enjoy inventing lies that insult, mock and demean those they dislike.  They intentionally break the bounds of civil discourse to establish their presence as powerful outliers, determined to undermine social norms—a.k.a. political correctness and general civility. Such practices have moved in from the fringes to become dire threats to our system of laws and democratic government.

The power of attention has enabled our species to develop a formidable capacity for wiliness and deception.  It creates a dark web that rivals our use of focused attention to seek truth and wisdom. Now the world must contend with the growing use of artificial intelligence, not only to scan scientific journals for ways to combat disease, but also to create “bots” that pretend to be human, acting as social media trolls and manufacturers of fake news, and the algorithms by which hackers steal our most private and valuable information. All aspects of the play of attention, and what we choose to do with it.

Our sitting President tells falsehoods, according to recent tallies, in 70 to 95 percent of his public statements. Because of this trait, plus his lack of interest in the process of government and his apparent willingness to take this nation into war, many Americans and people in other countries sense impending doom unless he is removed from office. Many feel unspeakable horror when others defend him right or wrong, brush aside his lies, and continue to believe he will make our country somehow “great again”–that ill-defined and ominous goal–when we and most of the world find him untrustworthy, an affront to our national integrity, and a live danger to world peace.

I don’t have a recipe for dealing with President Trump. But I offer this firsthand account of someone like him on a much smaller scale:

When I was in my twenties I was showing my mother around the city when a well dressed, well mannered young man offered to help her up a long flight of stairs and mentioned that he was a doctor trained in Brazil. My mother, a retired nurse, was instantly charmed. After he’d chatted with us further, she smiled approvingly when he asked if he could have my number. After she returned home I began dating him, eventually trusting him with personal information such as where I kept a $20 bill for emergencies. There were no ATMs in those days, and $20 could get you through the weekend when all the banks were closed. One Friday I came home from work having forgotten to get cash, and discovered my spare $20 missing. Only one person knew where I’d kept it, so I called him. No one answered at his home so I tried the work number he’d told me not to call, claiming he’d be too busy to speak to me there. I explained to the person who answered that I was trying to reach Dr. so-and-so, politely using my boyfriend’s last name. After a strange pause, the voice replied that a man with that name worked there but was not a doctor and could not come to the phone. I was stunned, enraged, and felt played for a fool. When we finally spoke he said he’d planned to return the money he’d “borrowed” before I would find it gone. Sensing there was no way I would ever trust him again, he confessed that he’d always found it terribly easy, like a sickness, to make up stories about himself. He’d told me he was a doctor when actually he’d been expelled from medical school in his final year (not saying where that was, but probably not Brazil, given his accent), due to a problem (my guess: pregnancy) with a woman on the staff. He did not say what his real job was, where he’d grown up, or how he’d ended up in the States. But he did have feelings for me, he said, enough to warn me not to be so trusting in the future.

The most memorable part of this breakup was the genuine distress I saw on his face when he described how terribly easy it was for him to lie to people. Like a sickness.

There was real pain behind his confession, because he knew it was the end of our relationship, during which we’d shared some happy times and enjoyed each other’s company. He was losing the trust and friendship he’d had from me, and on some level he knew that if he hadn’t tried to deceive me he wouldn’t be going through that pain. On the other hand, if he hadn’t lied about being a doctor, would he have charmed my mother and convinced me he was respectable enough to have my telephone number after so brief an acquaintance?

After an experience like that, can you blame me for hoping our President—before he does greater harm to this country—will find himself in a personally painful situation where he admits to the truth about himself—that he has lied about his motives and many other things, falsely maligning his opponent in the election, promising jobs and health benefits he could not deliver—and is unfit to carry out the responsibilities of our nation’s highest office? Or is that too much to hope for in a crafty soul?

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIAT LUX – Impressionist Painting in Light of Trump

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An art historian friend convinced this attending metaphysician to take a boat tour down the Seine to visit some Impressionist painters’ hangouts in northern France, plus a few days in Paris to squeeze through the city’s Impressionist exhibitions. The group consisted mostly of retirees pursuing long-postponed avocations— travel, painting, writing, reading, and, if possible, becoming more active citizens.

For ten days in May we enjoyed the glories of crisp sunny weather in Montmartre, Auvers-sur-Oise, Etretat, Honfleur (where sunshine morphed into dark clouds, flash rain and back in under an hour), Rouen (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake), Monet’s magnificent pond and garden at Giverny, and back to Paris for a cruise of the city’s magical nightlights. Throughout, we tried to retain scraps of the vast knowledge of art, doused with sly wit by our unforgettable guide, Jennifer Burdon, whose presence was worth the price of the trip.

Footsore and awestruck from tromping through so many sites made historic by the Impressionists’ depictions of them, we sat down to wine-soaked—this was France, after all—and waistline expanding gourmet meals. Alas, lunch and dinner conversations seemed to drag themselves helplessly toward the elephant in the room. Those willing to reveal their views had grave fears that President Trump would undermine or destroy our democracy. This was before he revoked U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord.

How could we apply what we were learning about art to said elephant? Our hearts were touched by reminders of the near-starvation poverty of Vincent Van Gogh, supported whenever possible by his brother Theo, and the sight of the brothers’ graves, side by side, symbolically united by a thick cover of ivy. We heard about Armand Guillaumin, a lesser-known but influential painter who won a lottery, was able to leave his job and devote himself to painting, sharing his breakfast rolls with less fortunate artists out painting with him. Under the roiling coastal skies of Normandy, birthplace of Impressionism, we learned how the emphasis on the play of light and color on myriad subjects—including just clouds—gradually transformed traditional standards of beauty and artistry.

Jennifer informed us that not all Impressionists accepted the term, as it once implied sloppy workmanship. But they might have agreed with commentators who claimed that, because of them, the painting itself became the subject, rather than what was being painted. –With that insight, against our will, we were brought back to Trump.

It was hard not to notice that this President tries to make whatever he paints—in words, at least—more important than the actual subject, which is the reality of facts. He got elected by promising what he is unable to deliver in terms of jobs and health care, playing upon people’s fears and stirring up misogynistic hatred of his opponent in the presidential campaign. Now that a slim lead in the Electoral College has given him the Presidency—when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a decisive margin—his self-portrait is becoming one of a willfully ignorant winner of a campaign based on his own lies, fake news, and widespread tampering with social media by right-wing extremists and a foreign, anti-democratic government. What kind of impression does that make on those paying attention to his abuse of light and color? The lineaments emerge as a very real and dangerous paradox: a legitimately elected, but morally and ethically illegitimate President.

What chance does our country have to not be dragged down into less than reliable—even former—status as the world’s indispensable nation? Those of us who have no handle on political power can only rely on our powers of attention. In particular, the motivation to protest dishonest leadership and to support responsible media and nonprofit organizations willing to expose this administration’s threat to our democracy, our health, environment, economy, and our responsibility to help others here and around the world.

The Impressionists started out in poverty, their works rejected by those in power in the art world, the French Academy. But gradually, after great effort and the undeniable genius of a new form of art, their achievements (if not the artists personally) prevailed. Let’s hope that what made America great will prevail—being a nation of immigrants fleeing poverty and injustice, helping win two world wars, assisting war-torn nations to rebuild after those wars, providing moral leadership during the Cold War and in matters of human rights, and an economy based on freedom to innovate.

Let us also hope that our nation’s mistakes, yet uncorrected—failing to bypass the Electoral College, which enabled a previous loser of the popular vote to preside over major disasters such as the invasion of Iraq, the ruthless speculations of Wall Street investors and banks that caused the collapse of the housing market and triggered the Great Recession—will also be overcome, so that the tyranny of wealthy oligarchs does not prevail.

Even it means removing President Trump and his cronies from leadership.

Let there be light. And hope. And attention to activism.

WHAT HAPPENS TO ATTENTION IN THE POST-TRUTH ERA??

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This problem is so vast—close to overwhelming—that we’ll try to creep up to it on a personal level. In this non-fake case, half a dozen older adults recently got together for a holiday lunch sponsored by the charity for which they work as volunteers. In this group, a friend of mine we’ll call Lynn found herself seated next to a man we’ll call Ben, known to be active in his church. In their three years serving as volunteers Lynn and Ben had developed a friendly working relationship. What emerged in their lunch conversation, however, was that they’d voted on opposite sides of the 2016 Presidential election. Ben, who earns his living renting and selling apartments in New York, was elated that Donald Trump had won the election. Lynn voted for Hillary Clinton, and thought it was unfair that she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, yet was kept from winning the presidency by the unrepresentative tallies of the Electoral College.

“You’re in real estate,” Lynn said to Ben. “How could you vote for a realtor who took out huge loans, declared bankruptcy six times, and stiffed his contractors for the work they’d already done, putting many of them out of business?”

“Yes, I am in real estate,” Ben responded confidently, “and in Trump’s position I’d have done the same thing.”

“But what about all the lies he’s told,” Lynn asked, “all those insults against immigrants, stirring up hatred for Hillary, calling her a criminal and threatening to put her behind bars?”

“Oh, he’d say anything to get elected,” Ben said in an admiring, dismissive tone. “What matters is, he won.”  By that time, the rest of the table was listening, so Ben announced that instead of quibbling over the election everyone should support the new President in their prayers.

Lynn, offended by Ben’s evasive move, said she’d pray for President Trump to stop lying and act like a responsible leader of the free world rather than a demagogue. The group fell silent, gradually finding things to say about the dishes they’d ordered, the relative merits of diet soda, etc.  Afterward, Lynn confided that she no longer trusted Ben as a businessman or a friend, and would have to pretend to be on positive terms with him as a volunteer.

What, I asked, troubled her the most about Ben? “I wasn’t born yesterday,” she replied defensively. “People lie all the time. It’s just that now we’ve had an election where lies carried the day.” She believed that an oddly charismatic but far less capable person had become President by means of hate-mongering, falsehoods, and fake news that maligned the far more qualified candidate. She was frustrated and more than a little frightened.

“What if everyone lied as a means to an end? We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. Our whole legal system would crumble if people were not required to tell the truth, and punished for perjury.” It wasn’t that Ben’s guy won the election, Lynn explained, it was how he won it—by deliberate distortions of the truth, he and his supporters brushing aside facts and fact-checkers as irrelevant. The result of this disrespect for truth-telling and facts seemed to be that our country was now led by a poorly informed narcissist who generates fake news as ceaselessly as he complains about it.  Lynn mentioned her deep forebodings that the brains behind Trump’s win was the former head of a white supremacist fake news organization, who might assume the role of shadow president. She did not express those concerns to Ben, though, as she was began to feel it was hopeless trying to communicate with him. “He’s supposed to be religious. Isn’t one of the Ten Commandments not to bear false witness? Isn’t that exactly what Trump is doing?”

According to voter interviews, many said they’d overlooked Trump’s unethical track record, in business as well as molesting women, and set their hopes on him out of anger and desperation. A large chunk, who probably gave him his margin of victory in the Electoral College, were on the losing end of an economy that favors the rich and leaves middle and working class people behind. For them a vote for Trump was a Hail Mary pass that entailed discounting a multitude of falsehoods, bad behavior, and fear tactics that generated hatred and distrust. Such methods, others feared, could ultimately destroy the democracy—or what was left of it after the gerrymandering, voter suppression, and dark money poured into elections by the superrich.

Of course, I only heard Lynn’s version of this troubling encounter, but I’m sure she relayed the gist of it. I do share her concern for our democracy and legal system, but as an attending metaphysician I am concerned for other reasons. When we are giving our best attention to someone or something, are we not seeking—and/or appreciating—truth in some way? There is something deeply jarring about being conned or misled by someone who is using their intelligence to conceal truths they don’t want us to know. Human beings pay attention (as do other animals) in a fluid interactive relationship with feelings. It’s one thing to pause and admire a beautiful sunset; another to scrutinize an inflated cable TV bill; yet another to notice the dark circles under our eyes and realize how unhealthy and old they make us look.

Metaphysical attention is the calmest and deepest kind, based on the richest substrate of care, honesty, and appreciation for the integrity and importance of others. It is the only kind that produces what Pope Francis calls discernment, especially that of right and wrong, good and evil. Throughout history philosophers have warned that strong emotions distort reason, but recent research indicates that even rational decisions are influenced by emotions. The question then becomes, What kind of emotions underlie the calculations and our rational minds—ones tied to respect and concern for others, or feelings colored by fear, enmity and disrespect? The Pope makes a powerful point: that in times of crisis, when people are taken in by populist leaders who stir up fear, anger, scapegoating and hysteria, “discernment doesn’t work.” Wow. In a nutshell, such emotions prevent people from perceiving good and evil. Francis has referred to the hysteria of Nazism and Hitler, which won the votes of the German nation and ended up destroying it.

Could President Trump’s chaotic scapegoating, false accusations, and animosity toward Muslim immigrants and minorities destroy the U.S.A.? Let’s not forget that pre-Nazi Germany was considered a highly civilized nation, full of scholars, artists, and scientists who, surely, would not be fooled by a demagogue.  Precious few, who were paying serious attention, resisted. But as we know, far too many succumbed to his charismatic rants. Their country, and the world, paid a terrible price. Attention to truth obligates us to defend it, to insist upon truth and justice.  The survival of our democracy and our integrity as a nation is at stake.

WHEN ATTENTION GOES DARK

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So far, this attending metaphysician has focused on positive, life-enhancing aspects of attention. But after the 2016 election, much of our country, and the world at large, has had a bitter taste of what could go wrong when attention, facilitated by false information, anger and fear, can lead to dangerous choices. In itself, fear is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance are forces that can derail whatever is civilized in human civilization.

To estimate the vast range of the power of attention we have to look at its dark side. As this election has demonstrated, when people let their thoughts and feelings be manipulated by others, or base their decisions on appearances without backup information, or trust a charismatic personality without taking into account his previous life history, or allow any other factor to prevent them from making informed decisions, then their choices can endanger our entire culture.

Normally we do not look for the dark side of attention, but we do feel its effects. Especially in the past year or so, we sense it in our deeply polarized political climate, when people who voted differently became enemies or former friends.

There’s reason for recent talk of tribes, information silos, fake news, and the growing distrust of facts even when presented by traditional sources of expertise such as responsible journalists and scientists. If not a sickening awareness, there is at least a justified fear that we live in a post-truth era. In order to discredit the most pressing issue of our time, the reality of human-caused global warning, a handful of ultra-rich, conservative industrialists and politicians—represented most recently by Donald Trump—have called global warming a hoax. Doing so requires ignoring enormous factual evidence. Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches have been so rife with falsehoods, and so many fact-checkers have called him out on them, that he and his allies have retaliated by denouncing facts and truth in general.

A telling detail emerged soon after Mr. Trump was assured of winning the election—despite losing the popular vote. He no longer insisted on some of the key premises that brought him victory. The most obvious was calling his opponent crooked, corrupt to the core, probably a murderer, and if elected he would put Hillary Clinton behind bars. Instead, in his victory speech, he insisted (rightly) that the nation owed her a “major debt of gratitude” for her many years of public service.

That statement alone revealed how cynical were the false accusations Trump and associates had hurled against Mrs. Clinton, stirring up hatred to the point where many of his supporters were dismayed to hear that their hero was not going to “lock her up.” In a thank-you speech to his supporters, bewilderment showed on their faces when he brushed aside their chants as having “played well” during the campaign, but were of no further use to him. Were they not, sadly, the ones who’d been played?

This revelation also exposed how easily Donald Trump had built his campaign upon decades of hate-filled smears against Hillary Clinton by far-right talk radio and Fox TV News commentators. Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” After years of angry, fear-mongering diatribes against Mrs. Clinton in right-wing media silos, many people were ready to believe that she actually was a criminal. They primed to accept fake news that the Pope had endorsed Trump for President, and that the Clintons were operating a child molestation ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor–inspiring a father of four to drive 20 hours on a weekend and fire his assault rifle in deluded defense of those imaginary children.

I am reminded here of a long neglected warning from a great but little read philosopher, Bernard J.F. Lonergan. In his classic work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1978 [1957]), Lonergan dared to claim that what people accepted as “common sense” was often the result of mental laziness, received ideas unredeemed by individual reflection and intelligence. If he were alive today, Lonergan might well identify the widely accepted but unfounded assumptions and suspicions about Mrs. Clinton as examples of what he called the “social surd.”

Lonergan borrowed the term surd from mathematics—surds being numbers such as the square or cube root of 2, that cannot be reduced to a fraction of two integers, and are called irrational numbers. Both surd and its better known cousin, absurd, come from surdus, Latin for deaf, dumb or stupid. The force behind Lonergan’s idea of an irrational social surd lurking within “common sense” was his identification of the accumulation of unexamined assumptions and emotional bias as components of cultural evil.

Why evil? Because received ideas—such as someone’s being “crooked” or a murderer without evidential proof—distance people from their personal responsibility to consider someone’s character in light of verifiable facts. Innocent until proven guilty remains, despite too frequent compromises, the basis of our justice system. As in a court of law, if jurors/citizens accept the opinions of others without looking into them, or assume that news items on social media or the opinions of “talking heads” are true when they are not supported by credible evidence, we leave ourselves open to mental and emotional manipulation. And small manipulations increase injustice in a society, distort “common sense,” and can end in tyranny.

How tyranny? Think of the rise of Goebbels’ boss, Hitler. As a society accumulates unfounded judgments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious bias, etc.—it can fall under the sway of charismatic leaders who are amoral sociopaths. But even without a demagogue setting the tone, biased reasoning can rip up the social fabric and undermine democracy, which stands or falls on the basis of citizens’ commitment to vote thoughtfully and fairly.

This gives new meaning to the old adage, Constant vigilance is the price of virtue. Today we must be more vigilant, to protect ourselves and others from the dark side of attention. More on that later.

THE PHYSICS OF TIME AND HEAT – AND OUR SURVIVAL AS A SPECIES

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The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli tells us in his international bestseller, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, that “there is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is the flow of heat.” The flow of time, he writes, is a matter of thermodynamics, subject to the vagaries of probability. Building on Einstein’s amply verified theory of relativity, Rovelli says that just as there is no definitive “here” in relation to other points of reference, neither is there an objective “present” in terms of time. Our sense of passing time, he explains, arises from “microscopic interactions within the world” that are part of “systems” such as human consciousness and memory. That about wraps it up, I guess, if you’re a physicist.

Time remains a mystery, Rovelli admits, but he does a formidable job reducing it to a blur of subatomic particles perceived within the limitations of human consciousness, including the finest of scientific calculations. Given the limitations of my non-physicist consciousness, I think he’s on to something beyond physics when he identifies heat as the sole detectable factor separating our past from our future.

Put in more human terms, is heat rather akin to attention? If we put our attention on someone, are we not transmitting an immeasurable but sometimes detectable impulse of energy towards them—such as when we sense someone looking at us? Keeping things strictly materialistic, our brains consume energy, so can we not consider mental impulses that require the brain’s energy as some version of heat? Looking at it another way, isn’t attention what enables us to distinguish what has happened from what is happening?

What, though, about things that have taken place in the past but linger in our minds so that they remain alive in the present, events and people we still care about, puzzle over, continue to study, imitate? Lingering objects of attention give force to Faulkner’s famous line, perhaps alluding to the South’s role in the Civil War, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The parts of the past that do not die are those that draw enough of our attention for them to stick in our memory. The elasticity of human reactions allows for widely differing perspectives on past events. The pioneers’ brave expansion and settlement of the American West looks very different from the standpoint of Native Americans, whose tribal lands were overtaken, treaties broken, burial grounds desecrated, and so on.

We give certain experiences more attention than others because they elicit some form of psychological heat – curiosity, fear, admiration, humor, regret, love, resentment, hope, etc. From what I’ve read about how the human brain works, items that stay in our memory are glued to or associated with emotions of some kind. Otherwise they are not retained, at least in that person’s memory.

Think of what an enormous effusion of, shall we say, attention quanta, human beings (not to mention other beings) emit daily. From the homeliest impulse to get up in the morning, to numberless types of effort put forth by multitudes throughout their day’s labor—to serve others, to deal with all manner and size of interpersonal conflicts, to keep informed about what’s happening around us. Within this huge output of attention impulses are, say, quarks of different types of attention—from the keenest concentration required for original work of any kind, to the tedious forms of labor done solely for a paycheck, to routine tasks of personal hygiene, transportation, shopping, housekeeping and so on.

Good luck trying to fathom the myriad attention units devoted to sexual desire, romantic love, and the equally vital efforts of friendship.

Attention quanta may also differ in terms of age and stages of consciousness. The very young survive by focusing on those who take care for them, because their lives depend on whether they receive nurturing attention. Children soon face the demands of schooling, and meet various degrees of success fitting into so-called peer groups, developing their personal identities by trial and error.  Hopes and dreams for making a difference in the world extend far beyond youth, of course.  Many of us do not fulfill our desires and others’ expectations, and must learn to be thankful for whatever we have.  As they age, many find it necessary to calculate the energy we will need to give our full attention to the tasks before (another strange quark of attention) and what to put aside when running on fumes.

For any age, let’s not leave out the unfathomable attention quanta humankind expends on—to paraphrase Zora Neale Thurston—licking the pots in sorrow’s kitchen. Enduring physical pain, illness, disability, abuse, loneliness, trauma, shame and grief are as demanding in terms of attention as they are unavoidable to those afflicted. Oddly, those who suffer through such things are not precluded from moments of happiness as fine as any experienced outside sorrow’s kitchen.

The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil considered attention to be the purest form of prayer. She believed that “attention is the only faculty that gives us access to God.” Whether or not one believes in God, the power of attention is something undeniable in human experience and seems essential to any manifestation of love. There would be no works or art, scientific discoveries, technology, perseverance through hardships, heroism, civilization or survival of our species without it.

Science has not gone beyond the Big Bang theory of how our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, when there was a great burst of heat, light, energy and eventually matter. Only recently we’ve learned that visible matter, including us, is about 3.5 percent of the universe, whereas invisible or “dark” matter and energy constitutes all the rest. What are these unseen constituents?  We have no clue. All we know is that dark energy propels the universe to expand, while dark matter provides the gravity that keeps the stars, gas and dust in all the galaxies from flying apart.

Rovelli the physicist directs our attention to an amazing thought, that the flow of heat makes possible our experience of the passage of time. An attending metaphysician might extend this idea further: that the heat of which he speaks includes immeasurable quanta of attention. The energy source of this attention possibly connects us to that which brought our universe into existence and keeps it from dispersing into chaos.

How we experience time—and how we try to affect what is happening in present time—may determine whether our species will experience a future.

Rovelli’s book closes with a scientifically valid, hard-nosed assertion that our human species will probably not survive the damage we have already done to our environment. He hardly needs to exemplify this prediction with reference to global warming, widespread pollution, loss of habitat and mass extinction of other species due to our overuse of natural resources, and the extinction of earlier human species and civilizations.

It begs the question, in the most total way a species can beg:

Why can’t we apply more of our heat to the flow of time? Can we put enough attention into saving the biosphere so as not to destroy human civilization? Are we not capable of exerting more, stimulating more, innovating more, doing more of whatever it takes to save our future on this beautiful blue sphere on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions? What better goal would humankind have, exactly now?

 

 

 

RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE

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RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE—RELEARNING PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE

For years I walked by the closed lid of my piano, stifling pangs of regret and longing to be back in the weeds making music. I had solid excuses: courses to prepare and teach, stacks of homework and papers to mark up. It was heartfelt work that kept me up long into the night and delivered a shot of adrenaline each time I entered the classroom, followed by the joy of learning from my students. Years flew by. I would dust the piano and tell myself, Someday….

Then, in an impersonal flip of academic politics, I found myself “retired.” Hiding momentarily behind the bewilderment, however, was the gift of time for me to write more…and return to the piano!

Lifting the lid on that untouched keyboard was like trying to make amends with a long forsaken lover. I now had creaky, arthritic fingers and a thumb that stabbed with pain when asked to play notes forte or louder. Not only did I need larger reading glasses so I could look up at the music and down at the keyboard, but my vision was erratic. My eyes skipped ahead or landed too far up or down on the staff, and had to be reined in like puppies on a leash.

It proved necessary to acquire a half-deaf forgiveness for the sounds I produced. Especially the ruination of promising-sounding passages that came to rude, aborted ends, given my unpredictable but ever lurking tendency to botch things I hadn’t previously messed up.

You see, I may have been treating my piano like a piece of furniture, but I hadn’t stopped going to concerts and hearing great artists at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The contrast between their mastery and my bungling was all too real. How to avoid the sinkhole of exasperation and disgust?

Ages ago, a concert artist and revered teacher, Alice Shapiro, told me to first learn a piece by playing it very slowly. Her advice resonated with that of my inspiring present teacher, Michael Blum, who says, “Play something so slowly and softly that it’s like doing tai chi. Don’t try for any kind of expression at first. Just let the notes quietly tell you about themselves.” By this he means listening for their harmonic structure, their phrasing, and how those elements support the mood and feelings the piece might express. It struck me as a form of meditation, or perhaps a reflection on great literature, where one dives into real or imaginary worlds from the safe distance of an observer.

Similar to meditating, I found it ever so easy to lose patience with the process. As soon as I try playing something faster than I can do justice to the notes, I stumble upon why patience is a virtue. It’s hard to get comfortable with the reality of attention being a discipline, requiring humility and time. I’ve wasted precious time repeating botched passages at full speed before, duh, I think to play them slowly, accounting for each note, after which they seem to fix themselves.

Music is like a relationship. The more attention you pay, the deeper you go. And, whether gradually or in bursts of affection, playing the piano rewards attention—with relief from arthritis, and the feeling of earned participation in works of genius.

ARGUING WITH A GREAT MEMOIR

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A GREAT MEMOIR IS LIKE A LINGERING CONVERSATION

I’d heard about but not read Mary Karr’s classic memoir The Liars Club (1995), until after the release of her masterful how-to treatise, The Art of Memoir (2015). Karr followed up Liars Club with two more bestsellers, Cherry and Lit, setting the bar for personal accounts of surviving apocalyptic childhoods that plunge into wild, self-abusing adolescence and early adulthood. In a world where self-destruction is always an option, people with their own threats to survival are drawn to real life stories for inspiration and perhaps the chance to feel part of a secret community amidst their isolation.

Sometimes what inspires comes by arguing a bit with the author.  In The Liars Club, Mary returns to her East Texas home from college:

Back at school, I’d been trying to read the philosophy of art…. I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow “transcend” the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger. In those days the drug culture was pimping “expanded consciousness,” a lie that partly descended from the old post-industrial lie of progress: any change in how your head normally worked must count as an improvement.

It was either her belief in this “lie” about altered states of consciousness, she writes, or beer, that propelled her into a most beatific game of pool, where even her father whistled at the incredible efficacy of her bank shot. She was floating in joy to be back home with her dad in the Legion Hall where he and his fellow oil workers—all low paid and receiving no honors for punching the time clock—gave pool the kind of attention their jobs didn’t deserve. They played pool for “itself alone.” Its spiritual comforts, such as friendship, could not be “confused with payback for something you’d accomplished.”

I was taken by Karr’s lucid particularity, not so much on the methodology of playing pool, but on the exhilaration that comes with pure, selfless attention. Quality attention, such as these vets with mind-numbing jobs played this game with zero vanity, posturing, or expectation of recognition for their skill. However…as a metaphysician of attention, I found myself questioning Karr’s so-called “lie” about expanded consciousness that she ties to the so-called industrial revolution’s so-called idea of progress.

Karr’s memoir seemed to be giving the art of playing pool for itself alone the kind of status she’d debunked in her philosophy of art class. So let’s dismiss all phonies who pretend to love great art for reasons outside the art itself [such status-seeking], and focus on people who sincerely want to explore what goes into making great art. The latter might ask: Is Karr’s eye for the geometric wizardry of pool all that different from an art historian’s meticulous analysis of Vermeer, Matisse or deKooning? Since many of us cannot claim pool as part of our personal skill set, Karr’s memoir seems to capture what it meant for the working men of that East Texas oil town and frame it on an indelible canvas. With full respect, who is she to imply that readers of her memoir might experience moments of pure attention that could expand our consciousness, possibly a real, if ineffable, “improvement”?

Being with her father’s friends relaxing at the Legion Hall, Karr writes, “clarified who I was, made me solid inside.” Isn’t that a chunk of self-knowledge, achieved by means of pure attention—via the hard-won honesty of memoir writing? Could we dare to call it a respectable way to “pimp” expanded consciousness? I wrote the preceding lines before reading Karr’s Art of Memoir. In the latter I learned that she’d been recommending all sorts of consciousness expanding techniques—including meditation—and having similar conversations with herself and her writing students for 30 years.

My next piece will attempt to share some of the ego-evaporating experience of returning to playing classical piano after decades of ceding to other priorities, neglect, guilt and frankly, missing the frustrating practice that I loved.

EVIL TONGUE OR PATH TO REFLECTION AND HEALING?

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Cynthia Ozick was given front page real estate in the New York Times Book Review, with a devilishly catchy title, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” (12/20/2015). Her essay refers to the Book of Genesis, where Eve listens to the serpent and is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as is Adam, her companion. God has threatened that they will die (by which He could have meant lose their immortality), if they eat this fruit. The crafty serpent seems correct when he says they won’t die for eating it (in the sense that they won’t drop dead on the spot).

So our two primordial ancesters are ejected from Eden, suddenly aware of their nakedness and need to be clothed. They are also unequally cursed, as feminist interpreters have noted. Eve and women after her will be afflicted with pain in childbirth, but will desire their husbands. Adam and men after him will have to sweat in hard labor for a living, with no mention of desiring their wives. It is one of two incompatible creation stories that the ancient compilers of far more ancient Hebrew oral traditions placed at the beginning of the Bible. Christians refer to it as The Fall, the beginning of evil among humankind, putting us in need of redemption in the form of a Savior. Others have read it as a parable of human choice to obey God or not, and the consequences.  Interpretations abound.

Ozicks’s unusual perspective sees the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit as marking  not only humankind’s fall into sin and gossip, but also the beginning of all storytelling and, she implies, sexual desire.  If Eve hadn’t listened, “Eden would still be…a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring forth.” Ozick and many others assume that Adam and Eve did not make love before they realized they were naked.

One of the Ten Commandments forbids us to bear false witness, and elsewhere Scripture tells us not to be “going up and down as a talebearer among your people.” Without Eve’s original listening, Ozick opines, there’d have been no Cain and Abel, crime novels, Hitchcock thrillers, no great writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, Austen, and Henry James. It’s a fascinating premise, but rather disturbing in regard to what the ancient Hebrews meant by bearing false witness and tale-bearing.

In early Hebrew culture and law, false witnessing referred specifically to lying in a legal matter—such as claiming that X stole ten of your sheep so that you could take ten of his, when in truth your sheep were killed by wolves and you’re falsely testifying in order to replace them with ten of X’s sheep. Likewise, tale-bearing in such an early context almost certainly meant slanderous rumor-mongering rather than entertaining others with fanciful but harmless stories. Some of the first tales, about heroes and their bravery, were clearly meant to inspire.

I believe this piece of nitpicking is important. Storytelling, minus the motives that boil down to malice, should be defended for its potential, in fiction and nonfiction, to open doors that no benevolent Creator would want closed. The chance to learn of, and be inspired by, the acts and feelings of other beings, real or imaginary.

Of course we are all swayed by the immediacy of a personal truth. Who can surpass Augustine’s confession that he begged God to free him from sexual sin, just not right away? But what if we are obsessed with unrequited passion for the spouse of a close friend? Would we not do better to assume the cover of fiction, removing our story to a different setting and changing everyone’s identity? The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote of literature as an art form that permits people to explore all kinds of experience, including terror and evil, from a safe distance. It was her belief that fiction could explore life’s nuances and complexity better than philosophy, thus the duality of her career.  She was not alone in this view.

I’m tempted to agree when Ozick writes, “Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine.” But not quite. Gossipers with malevolent intent do not strive to clarify true from false. They use craft to make the false convincing, as do all con artists, in order to steal from them their right to make an accurate choice.  Storytellers who seek to inspire or draw people’s attention to troubling aspects of existence are trying to bring about healing and growth.  Very big difference.

I know a man who lost a well-earned promotion because his rival had planted rumors about his physical frailty. The gossiper won the promotion. The one who deserved it, who’d been in good health until he learned of this betrayal, declined toward a premature death. The gossiper does harm by distorting the truth. Altogether different from the craft of a writer-thinker who ponders the meaning of life and tries to differentiate good from evil. In the case of the stolen promotion, both men had records of achievement, but one of them lied about his rival in order to tip the scales.  We acknowledge his cleverness, but sense the evil of it.

Going back to the person who wants to protect his/her identity as tormented by desire for a close friend’s mate. If you fictionalize the story, you redirect your attention into a different space, a lifeworld that frees you a precious bit from the hard reality of personal anguish. It puts your powers of imagination and attention into creating characters similar but not identical to yourself and those close to you. It even increases your compassion for those imaginary characters, and allows you as a storyteller to think beyond your circumstances. In this way fiction lets us express pain and anguish in ways of healing rather than harm.

The problem with Ozick’s compelling take on Eve’s listening as the symbolic origin of people’s capacity to be moved by storytelling is her—probably unintentional—compression of entirely valid biblical warnings against lying and gossip that do harm, with the liberating and healing uses of attention and imagination.

Perhaps the myth of Adam and Eve made it into the Book of Genesis as a creation story because it speaks of the immediate and longterm consequences of having to choose how we listen and act. Evil, for all its surface appeal, can be identified for the harm it does—sometimes not readily apparent. Goodness, however, always exudes an ineffable sense of joy in life, be it through increased understanding, compassion, friendship with real or imaginary characters, or a shared laugh at the ridiculous. Who was it who said the devil hates to be mocked? A wise storyteller.

SHOCK AND HORROR AT 50TH YEAR CLASS REUNION

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It happened this summer, on a seemingly innocent trip to the ladies room.

The 50th was my first ever class reunion.  I’d brushed aside notices for earlier ones, but when the invitation came, with a warning that it might be our last, I thought what the hell.  Give it a shot, though I’d been less than two years at East High, transferring from another high school in Washington State.  My stepfather had been promoted and we were settling into our best-ever home when he had a bad accident, lost his sanity, and was institutionalized indefinitely.  My mom, a licensed practical nurse, found us a small rental unit within walking distance of the school, barely affordable on her tiny salary.

In my mind, the only people who’d visited us in that spartan little place were a few family friends, my brother when he was on leave from the Coast Guard Academy, and my only boyfriend before college—a fellow nerd who came to do homework together when he was competing with me to get straight A’s.  I couldn’t think of anyone else, having assumed the place wasn’t presentable like the home we’d been forced to leave.

At the reunion memories were jolted by name tags that reproduced our high school yearbook photos.  One stylishly dressed woman peered at mine, shouted my name and gave me a hug.  I quickly scanned her name tag, pulled a blank, but greeted her as though we’d been pals.  Another woman remarked cooly that I used to teach her younger brother to play the drums. At once a buried memory arose of a series of determined little boys who’d come for drum lessons with me in the tiny living room of that modest rented home. How could I forget?  But I almost had, having given up playing drums to study the piano and survive in a tough college.

The most fun was standing in line for the cash bar, shooting the breeze with folks who did not recognize each other.  This required us to gamely summarize what was noteworthy about our lives.  We looked out over the room and concluded that, all things considered, we’d held up pretty well for our age.  Pretty soon all class members were called to assemble outside for a group photo. Several amateur photographers appeared besides the one hired for the occasion, so it took time.

After the group photos I headed straight for the rest room in a cluster of unfamiliar women.  Two of us were washing our hands at the sink when one caught my gaze in the mirror and said, “I know you.  You invited me to your house one day with two other girls. When I slid over on your sofa to make room for them I accidentally sat on my glasses and broke them.  You said to me, ‘You’ll pay for that,’ and none of us could think what to say. I was never in your place again.”

She walked briskly alongside me as we left the restroom, looking into me for an explanation.  This was clearly unfinished business, as raw and deep for her as it had been half a century ago.  Honestly, I could not recall the episode, but was stunned to hear about my ancient gaff.

“Wow,” I said, glad to be five decades removed from it.  “What a DUMB thing to say!”

Instantly, she responded as if to console us both. “We were children.”

Well, I said to myself, 17- or 18-year-old children, not toddlers.  For her sake I tried to sound upbeat, stretching toward philosophical.  “Life sure is amazing.  I have no memory of this, and you’ve remembered it for 50 years!”

Unsatisfied, she looked back expectantly, as though we both knew it was our only chance to settle the matter.

“It’s true we were children,” I said, “But I don’t know why I would say something so stupid.  I would not have wanted you to feel bad about breaking your glasses.”

She nodded, and made a guttural sound. “Maybe,” she suggested, “you were attempting some kind of humor?”

I recognized the truth.  “Yes, that had to have been my intention.  Obviously, I failed.”

No comment, but affirmation in her silence.  I wanted to know who she was, but couldn’t bring myself to cheapen the exchange by looking at her name tag.  We’d been walking briskly, and before I could think of anything more to say she disappeared into the ballroom.

Within a few days the episode and the mortification I’d felt afterwards had resurfaced. I wished I could have told her: “I was so horrified that I’d dropped that bomb, I was sure you’d want nothing more to do with me.  So I avoided you and didn’t have the nerve to ask you over again.”  But it takes time for such thoughts and words to form.

Still, I want to believe that this frank soul got what she needed from our brief encounter.  Chances are, it was not by chance that we met in the ladies room.  She must have seen me leaving the photo shoot and seized her only opportunity to solve something she’d puzzled over for 50 years.  It could have been the reason she’d attended the event.

This person drew my attention to something that had caused her pain and made her feel rejected.  I didn’t catch her name, but she knows mine, and by some miracle I hope she reads this.  So that I can thank her and say it was my loss that we did not become friends.

When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement

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Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?

 

 

ATTENTION LEAPING FROM THE MODERN LOVE SECTION OF THE NEWS

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Hundreds of comments, millions of hits and Facebook shares resulted from the New York Times Styles Section piece called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” by Mandy Len Catron.  Tons more responses resulted from the paper’s followup publication of the 36 questions Catron used to test whether she could fall in love with the man she agreed to try the psychological experiment with.

Catron admits she fell in love with this man, without confirming that it was due to the series of Qs.  Many responded that they definitely did not fall in love when they tried the questions, but that is not my point.  I want to refocus the discussion on the source of attention—and motive—of the originator of these questions so carefully crafted to induce feelings of love.

The first 12 Qs are more catchy than invasive, a gently powerful hook.  They show exceptional focus on what is entirely particular about the person questioned.   Whom would you have as a dinner guest if you could invite anyone in the world?  What for you would constitute a perfect day? Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?  and, If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

The Qs probe progressively deeper once the door has been opened:  Why have you not done something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?  What is your most treasured memory?  Your worst memory?  How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?  When did you last cry in front of someone, or alone?   –  No wonder one commentor planned to use the list to increase her number of meaningful interactions in a day!

This list is no idle compendium, but the product of an extremely high quality attention arising from a professional study of human nature.  As Catron acknowledges, it was  compiled over 20 years ago by the psychologist Arthur Aron, who used the Qs successfully to make two strangers fall in love in his laboratory.  Although Catron’s piece received much feedback from people who failed to fall in love after answering the questions, certain factors stand out that might have triggered the love interest of those who found themselves “falling.”

First, the questions are not mere pretexts to put forth one’s own views, mainly because each participant has to answer the same questions.  They are also crafted to induce two people to become more open, honest, and vulnerable to each other—in a challenging but not too threatening way.  They do not ask, for example, about income, past sexual relationships, politics, or people the subjects hate.  They are also a primer for how to draw someone out while paying respectful, truly interested attention to them.

Still, you don’t need a clinical psychologist to give you a fine tuned list of inquiries.

Sometimes an opportunity arises that does not lead to falling in love, but a lasting bond gets created anyway.  One such opportunity arose when I was in college, when I found myself sitting in a car full of students driven by a Caltech professor named Max Delbrück.

Carl, my date, was a Caltech student who sat in front next to the door, with me in the middle.  The back seat held three or four more students, chattering loudly as we traveled toward a social event I’ve forgotten.  But I never forgot my quiet exchange with the driver, whom I’d never heard of.  (He was quite an influential biophysicist, I learned later.)  I didn’t feel comfortable sitting next to the driver in silence, or ignoring him by talking with Carl.  I was curious about his accent, so I asked where he grew up.  Germany, he said.

It went on from there.  Did he have any siblings?  He was youngest of seven.  Did he get along with them or were there conflicts?  What were his parents like, and what brought him to the States?  He answered everything with a no frills, eloquent candor.  I don’t remember what he asked me, except that I replied just as frankly.  He was not a professor at my college so I had nothing to lose, and I was terrible at small talk.  Carl told me afterward that he couldn’t hear what Dr. Delbrück and I were saying over the din in the back seat, but he knew it was special because he’d never heard Max—who was known for a rather gruff manner—speak so personally.

After that outing Carl reported that Max made a point of asking him how I was doing.  When Carl told me that Max was always helping others with their research—offering ideas that won them win Nobel Prizes while never winning one himself—I sent up a fierce prayer that one day Max would get the recognition he deserved.

Years later, when I picked up the New York Times and read that Max Delbrück had received a Nobel Prize, my heart glowed with joy and pride for my once and ever friend.  That is the power of simple, honest attention.

THANKFUL FOR MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S LILA

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A week before Thanksgiving the National Book Award winners were announced. Previously I’d paid little attention to this event. Then I heard that Marilynne Robinson was being nominated for the year’s best work of fiction—her third nomination. So I was hoping the third time would be a charm. Sadly, Robinson was passed over again for an award she richly deserved. As luck or topicality would have it, the award went to a collection of short stories by a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No disrespect to this year’s winner, but it goes to show that there should be no winners or losers in the realm of great writing. In my view, Robinson’s work goes beyond the scope of a National Book Award. Hers is Nobel Prize material.

I’d no idea of Marilynne Robinson when I bought a copy of Gilead in 2005. The title caught my eye. I wondered whether it referred somehow to the mysterious balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible. Instead I was entranced by the voice of a country preacher, 77, with heart disease, writing a long letter to his seven-year-old son who would not grow up knowing him. This old man, Rev. Ames, had fallen in love with the boy’s mother when she appeared one rainy Sunday at the back of his small church. Here was the kind of literary figure considered impossible to make interesting: a sincerely good man. Even worse in terms of narrative challenge, he was a man of the cloth, with no checkered past, no addiction to booze, no action-packed city or frontier life to pepper the plot. Except that as a young man he’d lost his wife and son in childbirth and we find him after he’s spent 40-odd years a lonely widower. Ironically, his best friend, whom he has tried mightily—and at a crucial moment fails—not to envy, is a fellow preacher with a loving wife and eight children.

The most inspiring moment for me is when Ames tells his son how he fell in love with the boy’s mother, his much younger wife, who had stepped into his church simply to get out of the rain. She was a total stranger, and he didn’t even know if she was married. He admits that he flushed shamefully, lost track of what his sermon was about, and was only too well aware that he was doing everything in his power to hold this woman’s interest. If there is anything greater in modern literature about the mystery of love and the surrender of all pretense and dignity to the gaze of the beloved, I haven’t seen it. I wasn’t surprised when Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for that novel.

Then came Home, set in the same place and time, but told from the perspective of a peripheral character in Gilead. This inimitable character is the youngest daughter of Rev. Boughton, Rev. Ames’ best friend, who—unlike her father—never passed judgment on her beloved youngest brother, Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the family and godson of Rev. Ames.

Jack Boughton is a different kind of prodigal son. He comes home to the little town of Gilead no longer young, only to find that his father is frail and dying, and his godfather likewise. He’d been hoping to ask Rev. Ames to marry him and his common-law African American wife, whom he’d met after completing a ten-year prison sentence for a crime he had no memory of—perhaps it happened during a drunken black-out. He’d dared to hope that his wife and child might be accepted there, since the state, unlike its neighbors, had no anti-miscegenation laws. But he quickly finds that the community still holds him in deep suspicion, that his father cannot understand why the colored people have to riot in Birmingham and elsewhere (this is the fifties). And while he is there he gets a letter from the woman he loves, that seems to say she has succumbed to the wishes of her father—also a clergyman—to marry a black man who has promised to adopt the child she conceived with Jack.

Both Jack and Rev. Ames’ wife are present when the two old preachers discuss the topic of greatest torment to Jack: the religious doctrine of predestination—whether or not a person is doomed from birth to be destined for hell, no matter how mixed his or her life is with both selfish and goodhearted acts and intentions. The same conversation occurs in both Gilead and Home, and in both cases it is Mrs. Ames who ends it by declaring, “People can change.” In each case her words come as a shock, because she is a person of few words. All they know is that she arrived out of nowhere and that Rev. Ames loves her and respects her completely. If anything, she and Jack are almost equal in their isolation and outsider status. In fact, the only time we hear her name is when Jack says, “Thank you, Lila,” after she utters that resounding truth.

The high point of Home for me is the awkward, soulful talk Jack finally manages to have with Rev. Ames, when his godfather, who has long judged him as a disgrace to his family and his own name (he was baptized John Ames Boughton), sees that his seemingly ne’er-do-well namesake is actually a good man. He has given his whole heart to a good woman who loved him and bore him a son, whom he won’t be able to marry given the prejudice of society.  They both have sons who will grow up not knowing them.  Ames’ bitter disappointment in his godson is washed away in a flood of compassion and regret that he won’t live long enough to help Jack reconstitute his family. In that regard there will be no balm for them in Gilead. But there may be some when the reader pieces together the possibility that Jack was not doomed by God, but by the judgments of his own family and the secretly animosity of the man chosen to be his godfather. No wonder Rev. Ames longs to rechristen Jack as he leaves Gilead for a life of exile.

Lila is a novel written from Rev. Ames’ second wife’s point of view, and it is a masterpiece.

Why? Hard to say without sounding superficial. You see, this Lila is about as homeless as a person can be. She doesn’t know her real name, first or last. As a child she was stolen away from her natural family by a homeless woman called Doll who’d survived a near-fatal knife fight with a man. Doll may have done some housework for the girl’s family, or simply noticed that they had a daughter who’d been allowed to starve, whose legs were too spindly to walk on. Doll, by kidnapping her, saved the girl’s life, pulling her out from under the table where she slept in rags, carrying her away one night.

Over several years Doll had protected this girl, naming her Lila after the deceased aunt of a lady who’d let them stay with her while Doll nursed the child to passable health. Eventually they joined a small group of migrant workers, making their own campsites and sleeping out in the open or staying in occasional work camps, picking up whatever farming or other jobs they could find. For almost a year Doll took a job cleaning house so Lila could attend school and learn to read. With Doll and the others Lila learned the dignity of solitude, hard work, honesty, and not to trust anyone. In time the group disbanded, Doll got into another knife fight and this time killed her attacker, was badly cut herself, and probably went off somewhere to die. Lila was sent to work in St. Louis, unaware that the job was in a house of prostitution. It was after she’d left that place and went on the road by herself that she passed by the town of Gilead and stepped into Rev. Ames’ church to get out of the rain. She has no religion, no understanding of why people bother to go to church, and cannot understand why this kind old man (she does recognize that he is kind) would think twice about her.

What a love story.  She can’t believe or trust Rev. Ames’ love, and wishes she could be free of her love for him. They can hardly talk to one another. Lila carries an ocean of sorrow and untold indignity and destitution within her. Yet she has built a ship of self-reliance and inner dignity on which to navigate it.  She gives honest work for fair wages–cash or food–and when she feels overpaid out of charity she finds a way to work extra, unpaid. She catches her own fish and guts them with the knife she inherited from Doll.  She washes her body and her clothes in streams. There is deep beauty in how she sees things. I’ll offer just one quote:

She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles. The smell of the soap was a little sharp, like the smell of the river. In that water you could rinse things clean. It might be a little brown after a good rain, soil from the fields, but the silt washed away or settled out. Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.  (p. 60)

Lila had been taught to walk past shop windows in towns, not to look inside, because Doll had told her not to want what she couldn’t have. She hated charity, and people’s pity. What she liked best about Rev. Ames was that he was well acquainted with loneliness. It was something they could share. Barely able to read, her vocabulary is modest, and she has to ask Ames what he means by “existence.” She quickly understands that it is something she knows from the ground up.

I could go on, but words are failing. Read Lila. It’ll give you a whole new dimension of the art of paying attention.

 

 

“How do you like to go up in a swing?”

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 “Up in the air so blue…”  Robert Louis Stevenson put it so well, in a verse many of us older children grew up with.  As a child I absolutely loved going up in a swing, so much so that I wanted to go even higher.  In a moment of great exhilaration and trust that the forces of nature would fulfill my desire, I let go of the ropes, spread my arms and took off.  Miraculously I landed on my stomach, no bones broken, just the skin under my chin split open on impact.  Two small scars hidden from view are the only proof that I was once so filled with joy that I’d catapulted into the sky.

As I got older I noticed that most swings in playgrounds are too low to the ground to accommodate taller kids or adults.   Some parks even have signs telling grownups not to use the swings.  So heartless.  But to return to the subject: attention.

Swings being magical to me, I had a rude shock a few evenings ago walking past a set of swings in a park.  A young boy was being pushed by—given the family resemblance—his father.  Instead of looking up at the gorgeous sunsetting sky, awash with the joy of swinging, the boy’s face was turned up and back, joyless and tentative.  He was clearly waiting for the fun to happen, and if anything he seemed posed on the brink of sorrow.

As I passed in front of them, I noticed that the man was pushing his son on the swing with one hand, while reading his smartphone in the other!!  His real attention was directed at what he was reading, with a fraction vaguely reserved for giving his boy a shove.

What is more, this guy had a martyred set to his jaw.  A grim scenario popped onto the screen of my imagination.  He was a busy important professional who resented sacrificing time he would have otherwise reserved for himself—if only the child’s mother hadn’t nagged him to take his son out to the playground before the last scrap of daylight had faded.  There were no other children on the swings at that hour.  But, dammit, he’d salvage his personal plans at least partially—thanks to his trusty handheld source of news updates, transmitter of memos that can’t wait.

The scene put a whole new twist on attention for me.  Going up in a swing, that simple and great joy of childhood, now threatened by technology!  Or, shall we say, susceptible to technology’s means of dividing our attention from those who need to feel it fully–our children, who sometimes die, literally and figuratively, without it?  [See Introduction post.]

My heart went out to that little boy.  Unless his dad wised up and put his whole self into pushing that swing, the kid might want to jump out of it for a reason far different than mine.

 

INTERVIEW WITH MARILYNNE ROBINSON

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Some of a great writer’s deepest thoughts might pass under the public’s radar simply because they appear in an academic journal.  I hope this won’t be the case with the eye-opening observations of Marilynne Robinson that appear in a special issue on her work of the journal Renascence, published by Marquette University (Vol. LXVI, No. 2, Spring 2014).

Robinson is a renowned, prizewinning novelist (Gilead, Home, Housekeeping).  She is also a serious and challenging essayist, author of Mother Country, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books.  My interview for Renascence focuses on her nonfiction.

In the interview, Robinson offers readers a challenging insight about today’s culture—our tendency to undervalue ourselves as souls.  You might suppose that her perception—given her essays on the Calvinist faith tradition—would apply only to people who believe in souls.  Hardly.  I find it purely metaphysical at heart, because it is all about what kind of attention we give one another.

In When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson comments that we have “a painful and ongoing history of undervaluing ourselves and exploiting one another.” I asked her by what means this takes place, and how we could counteract this influence.  Robinson answers, in part, that “the great world tells us that life is all a matter of marketing,” and that “shoddy cultural goods are supposedly justified by the fact that people buy them.”  The same goes for shoddy political goods, she says, and when the public accepts and perpetuates “these condescensions” they “endorse cynicism,” which is “a kind of damp shadow that blights the flourishing of the better things we want and need.”

Shoddiness in culture can be anything from tv shows and commercials to rap lyrics, movies, magazines, pop art, and unverifiable cyber commentary.  It ends up being shoddy to the extent that whoever generated it did not give it full attention, which implies respect for its subject matter.  When rap lyrics refer to women as sexual objects to be violated and tossed aside, the men who write and sing them are not, of course, applying their attention to the humanity of women.  They are selling macho swag at the price of women’s dignity.  And that blights our culture by casting a damp shadow on women’s hopes for better relationships with men, and those men’s relationships to the children they father.

Cynicism is the driving force behind politicians who disparage social programs that help the poor and provide educational opportunities, among other government efforts of clear benefit to society.  Their distorted and often fabricated claims are part of a cynical agenda to reduce taxes on the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.  No need to argue how far this blight has spread in today’s world.

The shadows of cynicism hang over billionaire industrialists whose factories and refineries pollute our environment.  They try to pour millions anonymously into political campaigns whose goal is to remove government safeguards against industrial pollution.  If they were publically identified, the people whose lives are harmed by such pollutants could apply the powers of their own attention to these cynical machinations.  Result: such condescension to the wellbeing of others would be thrown into the light of justice.

In the world of religion, the blight of cynicism is associated with sin and evil.  In the secular world, let’s just say it’s an enemy to be reckoned with.  Today the reckoning has to consist in not only paying full attention to the threat, but speaking out and exposing it to the light of others’ attention.

As any attending metaphysician would tell you, personal attention has the power to change personal lives, culture, and politics.

 

On the BIG QUESTION, “WHY?” When we all have to die…

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REFLECTIONS ON “WHY? THE FICTIONS OF LIFE AND DEATH” BY JAMES WOOD

Wood is one of our finest literary critics, whose book How Fiction Works deserves to become a classic.  I was struck by his recent essay in The New Yorker (12-9-2013), which grabs you right off with his recent presence at the funeral of a 44-year-old man he did not know.  The deceased, brother of a close friend, was cut down in his fun-loving prime by a fluke illness, leaving behind a wife and children.  This spurs Wood to ask the Big Question: If we all have to die, for what purpose do we live, when most of us will soon be forgotten?

Wood confides that he lost his faith as a boy, when his parents could not explain why God let people die, like the single mother of his playmates who got cancer, or why some are born with mental and physical handicaps, suffer fatal freak accidents, and so on.  He writes that in his youth, to conceal his atheism—along with swearing, drinking, and listening to Led Zeppelin—he began to lie.  He began searching through novels for answers that religion refused to divulge.  Fiction seemed more honest because it “moves in the shadow of doubt, knows it is a true lie,” and “is always a matter of belief—for readers to validate and confirm.”

What was dangerous and troublesome in religion to Wood was “the very fabric of fiction,” “a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data.”  Wonderfully put.  Who has not hopped onto the magic carpet of literature to be transported to distant climes and into the heads of characters so unlike—or shockingly like—ourselves?

Anyone paying attention to how they pay attention would agree that great novels are so full of their own life that, while reading them, our own mortality is momentarily banished.  In Wood’s terms, “Death will roar back, but not yet, not now.”  Except that a few great novels are filled with death and dying in ways that may help not a few readers cope with it better.  Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is one.  The dying Ilyich, alone with his thoughts, reluctantly begins to review his ungratifying life from a previously disdained perspective—how little he has valued love in his striving for worldly status.

Most moving about Ilyich’s story, he seems entirely real.  This leads to where I differ from Wood’s choice of fiction as our best vehicle to convey what is dangerous and troublesome to religion and to any sort of received value or belief.  If we knew that this failed bureaucrat Ilyich was a real person who tried to work his way up the career ladder as we have, wouldn’t we take his moment of truth more seriously?  Lifelike fiction or real plodding human experience?  Not that we don’t love fine art, but—really.

There’s a reason so many Christians cling to the faith Wood found unsatisfying.  One reason, perhaps the biggest, is that Jesus, being born human and living among real people, had street cred.  There’s a kind of writing–not fiction, much as we love it–that carries the same credibility.

Wood overlooks something essential when claiming that novels perform “what God vouchsafes to us in Psalm 121: ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.”  Fiction preserves some of the history of our imagination, and much of what we imagine is based on real experience.  But fiction is also—and for some, most importantly—a means to travel beyond the borders of daily existence, to escape the finitude of the doors, rooms and routines we pass in and out of.  It’s just that some of us don’t always seek escape.  We want to face, to get help facing, whatever reality throws at us.

Woods overlooks the kind of writing that deals with the actual passages of our life, nonfiction.  Memoir, autobiography, personal journals and letters, to some extent biography.  In theological terms, the Lord’s promise to preserve our goings and comings is carried out partly by those created in His/Her image.  Even for nonbelievers, that instrumentality, the attempt to preserve and give meaning to our goings and comings, may be why nonfiction writing, especially memoir, has overtaken novels in popularity.

Memoirs are now written and published even by unfamous people whose lives do not make the history books or tabloids.  They are written and read for reasons that grapple with the Big Why of Woods’ essay, in non-imaginary realms, where readers realize that truth being stranger than fiction can be very entertaining.

Market research shows that memoir readers search for life stories that bear upon their own struggles and questions.  One of the strongest motivators for people to write about the darkest moments of their lives, strangely enough, is not self-promotion but to give others hope that they can survive their own particular shocks and horrors.

Here’s the thing, from a cosmic perspective.  Memoir writers and their readers can be likened to a communion of not-necessarily-saints.  A vast community of people trying to understand the perplexities of their own lives by learning about others’.  A bottom-line benevolent support system, so to speak.

There’s a deep undergirding of care to the whole enterprise of writing about one’s life and reading about others’ lives.  It involves a quality of attention that searches for healing and insight, and looks for hidden connections.  Whether perceived as divine or secular, this attention is life-affirming and mysteriously influential.  Shakespeare could have spoken for self-exposing scribblers and their readers in his famous, slightly misquoted line, There is a divinity [not “destiny”] that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will.  (We translate ‘divinity’ loosely here as ‘that which increases understanding by means of quality attention.’)

Wood says fictional characters, even if they die, return to life when we reread their stories.  By contrast, he needn’t add, real people die and stay dead. But not if they write a memoir, fill a journal, or write letters that survive.

Memoir writers not only have to find a narrative structure for the portion of life they are trying to write about.  They must face the existential challenge of writing as truthfully as possible, even if it may offend people they care about or uncover shameful or humiliating details.  It is a soul-wrenching project—one that feels like we need an assist from God and/or the spirits of brilliant writers past.

Dredging up memories is the just the beginning.  Once you’ve written them down, you must put them in a some rational sequence, a narrative.  Enter the agonies of craft.  You cut, paste, supply names, dates and locations to episodes partially forgotten, and change names to protect the living.  Making a readable story requires playing God in your tiny written universe—deciding to cull extraordinary persons and intriguing sub-plots in favor of those that move your story forward.  Doing so requires that you constantly refocus and reevaluate what deserves your own and readers’ attention.

It is perhaps the ultimate human quest: how best to give voice and form to the truth of one’s own unique life.  Why?  Because we can.  Because once we’ve written something in our own voice, it is part of creation.  Possibly immortal.

Attention Lurking in the News, #5: Why the Rich “Just Care Less”

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Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s 10/6/2013 opinion piece in the New York Times brings empathy—a.k.a. caring attention to others—on the front burner of people’s befuddlement about the rich.  Goleman’s essay, “Rich People Just Care Less,” zeroes in on what he calls “the micropolitics of interpersonal attention,” in order to understand why rich and powerful people don’t care much about the less fortunate.  Their attention deficit, he warns, threatens the nation’s public policy and support for social programs.

It’s bigger than that, I fear.  The future our democracy is as stake, as wealth and power play ever larger roles in winning elections.  But what kind of power are we really talking about?  Something deeper is going on.

Psychologists have been studying social power and the limited empathy of those with greater means.  This research seems to underline the obvious—that we tend to focus on the people we value the most.  Folks with fewer resources have more empathy because they value their neighbors and community more.  People of limited means need other people more because, unlike the rich, they cannot always hire others to tend their children, drive them about, look after their aging relatives, and so on.  Rich and powerful people are also prone to assume they are more deserving than the powerless, as if wealth bestows virtue and poverty merits disrespect.

The bias of the rich has led to the defunding of food stamps and the refusal by many states to implement Obamacare.  [Ran out of food?  You must have wasted your stamps on junk food.  Have a pre-existing condition?  Tough luck: insurance companies have to make a profit.  Can’t afford their rates?  Suck it up, or get a better job.]  Goleman says he’s more worried about the empathy gap between rich and poor than the income gap, which happens to be greater now than in the past century.

There’s a glimmer of hope, though, in research showing that individuals with friends in disrespected or hostile ethnic groups feel little or no prejudice even when living in heavily prejudiced communities.  But for this to occur there has to be “intergroup contact.”  How, we might ask, can the 99% intermingle with the 1% with ever more isolated gated communities and exclusivity?

Here’s a personal example of the complexity, and perhaps the simplicity, of how much this lack of empathy boils down to where we put our attention.

As a young woman working in a non-profit organization, I had a similarly employed friend who got the chance to administer an arts-related nonprofit in another city.  There she met a rich, elderly patron of the arts who had terminal cancer and no children.  My friend was poised, pretty, and intelligent.  She was not attracted to this man, but was oddly intrigued that he would pressure her to marry him so she would inherit his wealth.  He could have willed it to her without marriage, but he was probably trying to avoid the risk that she would be sued by his relatives.  Plus he wanted her to bear his name and carry out some of his philanthropic goals.  The last I spoke with her she had no illusions of love for this man, and feared that her life would never be the same if she accepted his offer.  Still, she looked me in the eye, nodded, and said the man claimed to be offering her more power and influence than she would ever have on her present career path.

A few months passed.  As Christmas approached, I received a gold embossed envelope containing a card with an elegant etching of a stately mansion.  Inside was a cool “Seasons Greetings,” signed with my friend’s first name.  No personal message.  The embossed address did not include her married name.  So I sent her a Metropolitan Museum of Art Christmas card using that address and her former name—proceeded by “Ms.”  I handwrote my warm wishes and the hope that she’d keep in touch. I never heard from her again.

Part of me understood that she now lived far away, and how could she continue to confide in me when her new life was so different and far more glamorous than mine?  The exchange of attention between us would no longer be equal.   But another part of me felt bereft, that she had done something inhumane.

Recently I remembered the end of this friendship as I was discussing Goleman’s essay with a colleague in the clergy. For some reason it made him think of a domestic worker who’d sought his advice on a terrible dilemma.  She was a maid whose long-time employer had died, leaving her $33 million in gratitude for her years of faithful service.  Instantly the woman’s life became a nightmare of lawyers—hired by relatives of the deceased who’d never bothered to visit while she was alive—accusing her of coercion and extortion.  Defending her innocence would require years of costly legal battles that could consume most of her inheritance.  My colleague’s Solomonic advice: keep one million and sign away all the rest. He told her she’d have a comfortable life and avoid some ugly battles that could ruin it.

Regarding my former friend, the clergyman asked me to imagine what her life was like marrying a rich man soon to die—moving into a palatial home, surrounded by servants she did not know how to supervise, with no friends to advise her and no background in that lifestyle.  After his death envious people would whisper behind her back, if not openly treating her like a gold-digger.  “I think she was lonely and wanted to reach out to you, but was also ashamed,” he said.  The odds were excellent, he added, that the dead man’s relatives would sue, or at the very least accuse her of taking advantage of him.

“So where did she put her attention?” I asked. “Was she in denial that she’d entered that kind of life for the sake of power and influence? Did she allow herself to consider my feelings?”

“Oh,” he replied, “the rich try very hard to present a clear, smiling face to the world.  But I know that in private, many of them are crying,” he said. “That’s probably why you never heard from her.”

More about caring less in my next post.

WHY LOUISE ERDRICH’S NOVEL THE ROUND HOUSE DESERVES THAT NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

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Funny how a few snarky reviews in major newspapers can turn readers away from works richly worth their interest.  Despite such reviews, The Round House deserves the comparison it is acquiring as the Native American To Kill a Mockingbird.  And yes, it  deserved the National Book Award.  Not just because it is narrated by a delightfully frank and not-so-innocent boy, as Mockingbird’s story was told by the fearless, hawk-eyed girl Scout.  Nor because its subject is the widespread, unprosecuted rape of Native women by white men.

Here’s why it deserves that prestigious award.  Like all great writing—it gets us to pay extraordinary attention.

Erdrich’s previous fiction often used a variety of narrators, to strong effect.  Some critics whine that she should have kept this approach.  But here her subject is so intimate, so fraught with potential revulsion, that a different kind of genius was necessary.  The author says the voice of an adolescent boy came to her as she was driving home from a visit to her parents, and she had to pull over to the side of the road to listen to it.  That was a decisive act of creative attention itself.

In The Round House, Joe Coutts is the 13-year-old son of a North Dakota tribal judge and his beautiful, much younger wife Geraldine.  She is raped by a man who came from behind and threw a pillowcase over her head so she could not see him or whether the assault was on Native or non-Native land.  In fiction—as in fact happens to so many Native American women—her rapist is a white man who cannot be brought to justice in today’s unfair mixture of toothless tribal and indifferent federal law.

Rape and the demeaning legal system (not) serving Indians in this country deserves far more attention than it gets, but it’s too grim a subject for most readers.  In Erdrich’s novel we are pulled in almost unawares when Joe’s account begins.  It’s a late Sunday afternoon in June, when he and his father notice that his mother is not home to start fixing dinner.

“Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits,” Joe observes. “We absorb their comings and going into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones.  Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening.

“And so, you see, her absence stopped time.”

That got my attention.  Doors didn’t simply open on a story of rape.  I was jolted by a young man’s ageless insight—that men rely on the women they love to dance them through time.

Joe describes the impact of the crime against his mother in his adolescent voice, full of guileless asides and goof-ball, Trekkie dialogue with his pals on the reservation.  We almost forget that he is looking back with the older eyes, and eloquence, of the lawyer and tribal judge he, like his father, has become.

Off go Judge Coutts and his son in a borrowed car to find his mother, only to see her whiz by in the opposite direction.  Joe recalls how his father laughed, “so relieved,” and said, “She forgot.  Went to the grocery and forgot it was closed.  Mad now she wasted gas.  Oh, Geraldine!”  How those last two words are spoken convinces Joe that his father “had always been in love with my mother,” and “never stopped being grateful that she had married him and right afterward given him a son,” when he’d been resigned to being last in his family’s line.

Readers walk with them up to Geraldine’s parked car.  We see her sitting rigidly in the driver’s seat, and realize she wasn’t at all mad about wasting gas.  She is traumatized, covered in vomit and blood, and smelling oddly of gasoline…a hint of how the perp had intended to kill her before she got away.  Each horrible step is recounted with a fresh juvenile grace.

Joe describes his father delicately lifting Geraldine out from behind the wheel, opening the door to the car’s back seat, “and then, as though they were dancing in some awful way,” maneuvers her delicately onto the edge of the seat, very slowly laying her back and onto her side.  “She was silent, though now she moistened her cracked, bleeding lips with the tip of her tongue.  I saw her blink, a little frown.”

Wow.  The boy watches so intensely that he catches these small movements, where there had been none before.  We are right there with him.  Our gaze sharpens to keep up with his.

That gives a taste of the calibre of observation we’re dealing with in this narration, the quality of attention it inspires.  We’re not surprised when Joe takes it on himself, against the warnings of both parents, to investigate his mother’s crime scene, and hears her cries rising up from the floorboards of the old sanctified round house, where the tribe used to hold traditional ceremonies in the days when they were forbidden.

Talk about riveting detail.  Joe identifies his mother’s rapist with the help of the man’s deformed and abandoned twin sister, a white woman who lives on the reservation!  She had been crushed in the womb by her brother, and left in the hospital to die by their mother.  The hospital’s night janitor, an Indian woman, nursed the child to life and adopted her, raising her—in stark contrast to her brother—in a loving family.  (Her upbringing itself is a study in healing attention.)  But Joe does not get the information he needs from her until—attention again—he proves by the way he listens to her that he is truly interested in what she has to say, and no longer repulsed by her superficial ugliness.

Because his mother’s rapist is not prosecuted but released, and considers his victim’s death unfinished business, Joe takes us on a perilous, but at times hilarious and tender, search for justice.

We are left contemplating the lifelong price of any major act of vengeance.  A very somber, sometimes inevitable place to put our attention.  The Round House helps us prepare for, revisit, or reconsider the dimensions of such a place—in the company of a 13-year-old character we grow to love.

A Plea from Little Sister in the Body

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In response to Peg O’Connor’s excellent essay “The Light at the End of Suffering” in the Opinionator blog of the New York Times, 4/7/13, I’d like to offer a somewhat different view than I’ve seen among the many interesting comments.

O’Connor writes about people with serious addictions like alcoholism, and the question of how much suffering people can take before they break down, hit bottom, kill themselves, or seek help in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.  I wrote in my 4/9/13 comment on O’Connor’s piece in the Opinionator that some forms of suffering can be perceived as pleas from one’s ‘higher self’ – perhaps the ‘higher power’ that both believers and non-believers can accept – for a more nurturing quality of attention to be given to our whole self.

That self, we often forget, is constantly and faithfully served by “little sister/brother in the body” (a Native American expression).  My mother taught me this tender, respectful term in childhood.  It came back to me a few weeks ago when I found myself incapacitated by an almost insurmountable flu.  I was reminded that neglecting this loyal, physical being’s needs would cause her to send signals like fatigue, indigestion, headaches, and the like.  And if the neglect persists, as mine did, the next to last recourse is succumbing to illness.  (We all know the last recourse.)

For too long, in my case, I’d pushed the limits of a natural tendency toward insomnia  —staying up much later than sleepiness told me to rest.  This bad habit—which a holistic healer explained to me is actually an addiction to one’s own adrenaline—weakened my immune system, and I came down with a very nasty flu bug.  It was so agonizing and difficult to recover from that I had to accept the possibility that I could succumb permanently if something not much worse hit me.  – That, as they say, got my attention.

Little sister in the body was too sick to help me distract myself from suffering by immersing my mind in reading, writing, and listening to informative programs on NPR.  When I could not sleep I found my mental self alone with my physical self, enduring with her all the torments of weakness, dizziness, acute pain, and difficulty breathing. The only solace was a small green shoot of awareness that I had not been attuned kindly to “little sister” for some time.  She’d been fed with a moderate concern for nutrition, while I rode roughshod over her need for a restorative sleep cycle.

It was a state of de facto meditation, a more elemental consciousness than I’d allowed myself to experience in some time, all the more ironic because it resulted from illness rather than good sense.

For many years I used to have the good sense to be a regular practitioner of meditation.  I knew it to be of lasting benefit, but let the practice lapse.  Too many things to do, including many of no lasting benefit that I could have replaced by meditating!  Little sister expressed it elementally:  if I’d kept up the practice of meditation I could never have fooled myself into giving up so much sleep at the cost of my health!

Fr. Lawrence Freeman, who travels the world teaching meditation and its spiritual connections, recently gave a talk in New York which he began by saying that prayer begins with attention, as does meditation.  As I’ve written in the introduction to this website, my own interest in attention began by learning that healthy babies deprived of attention die, and therefore attention is necessary for life.  In Fr. Freeman’s talk, he referred to ‘the quality of attention’ in several contexts, all concerned with the quality of one’s consciousness.  Depending on one’s quality of attention, one could feel isolated from others, on guard or inimical, or in friendship with them–the feeling of community or shared being engendered by meditation.

If attention is the basis of prayer, it can also be that of healing, in particular a friendly and grateful sense of being shared with one’s little brother or sister in the body.  Attention may not be able to cure all forms of suffering (but it might if given more of a chance), yet it surely paves the way for us to deal with suffering as best we can.  And sometimes the only cure for our lack of attention is illness.

Attention Lurking in the News, #4, Part Two: On Food Addiction and a Lost Friend

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Content that has depth and complexity is like a person.  We have to study it, and delay passing judgment until we’ve done our best to understand the subject.  Sometimes, like a cheating lover, the devil is found in the details.

Take the recent investigative ‘content’ concerning our nation-wide obesity problem. The Times and NPR reporters have produced in-depth reports on how the fast-food industry has devoted decades of scientific research to getting us addicted to processed foods with just the perfect “bliss point” of fat, salt, and sugar.  Like the cigarette companies before them, they buried smoking-gun memos that exposed their intention to create widespread addictions.  One snack food, they crowed triumphantly, successfully canceled out consumers’ ability to feel they’d eaten anything of caloric value!  We could eat this sugar-salt-fat delivery system forever, our bodies tricked into not signaling when to stop.

On a personal level, we know the kind of effort it takes to understand opposing views, say, among two friends or close relatives.  How much listening, weighing of another person’s life history, struggles, family influences, successes and failures, loves, losses and (most stubbornly concealed) sources of shame.  Try as we might, we can miss the real reasons behind seemingly irreconcilable differences.  But because we care about these individuals, we keep trying–observing, storing information, pondering.  One could call this reflective attention.  Some mysteries do seem to open up in time.

Because of the recent revelations about how food industry giants have done their utmost to get us to eat more often and in larger more fattening proportions, I recently gained insight on a long-ago disconnect with a former friend. The last time I’d socialized with her was years ago in the late afternoon, at her place, when her daughter came home from middle school saying she was hungry.  My friend offered the already overweight girl a large box of cookies, and returned to our conversation.  Her daughter stayed with us, and I must have shown concern–never mentioning it, of course–that the child was eating her way through the entire box–at least 20 cookies–and her mother was not even reminding her that they’d be having supper soon.

After that my friend became distant.  She and her husband were both seriously obese, and might not have been able to teach their daughter to restrain from overeating when they couldn’t control their own food addiction.  From studying alcoholism, which runs in my family, I learned that addiction changes our brain chemistry.  When addicted, our brains still know the right thing to do, but the chemical switch that enables us to take action, or to stop ourselves, gets turned off. And because our mind knows it’s right and can’t make us do it (without a lot of help and moral support, such as 12-step programs), guilt and shame result.

It wasn’t that my friend stopped liking me, it was that she didn’t want to feel guilty when I noticed her not dealing with her family’s obesity problem.

The obesity epidemic, thanks to the scrutiny (a first-rate version of attention) of content providers, now has a fighting chance of moving toward a cure.  So – three cheers for real content and the journalists that provide it, and three more for the attention we hope it gets!

Attention Lurking in the News, #4: On Content Providers, a.k.a. Journalists

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Maureen Dowd’s column, “As Time Goes Bye” in the New York Times, Sunday, 3/10/13, starts with a delightful reminiscence about her salad days as one of a handful of female cub reporters at Time.  She captures our attention evoking those “Mad Men” style years, when Time’s founder, Henry Luce, wanted the magazine filled with catchy items for, ahem, “busy men.”

The “Bye” Dowd refers to is Time Warner’s decision to cut the once-powerful magazine loose to fend for itself, while hanging onto more profitable ventures in television and film.  Time and other print media are “bleeding ad revenue,” Dowd notes.  As print journalism loses market share to digital media, it is “spooked by rumors of its own obsolescence.”

Dowd’s main concern is revealed at the end: the value of “content providers,” formally called journalists.  She’s got quite a point, but this attending metaphysician feels compelled to take it further.

Not just the world of journalists is spooked.  Readers of the NY Times are appalled that the nation’s premier paper of record has cut its ranks of reporters, reducing its news items noticeably, especially from foreign locations.

Equally spooky is CNN Cable News’ recent elimination of its foreign news offices, not even hiring freelancers to cover international news.  These efforts aren’t seen as “profitable” to the parent company, Time Warner.  Unfortunately for those who like their news straight, the most-watched TV news channel in this country, Fox, makes no pretense of in-depth news reporting.  That might offend the huge corporate interests that Fox’s owner, News Corp., represents.  Why should CNN continue to set a higher, more responsible standard?  Because it can?  Because it wants to provide news that is actually–rather than cynically, as in Fox’s motto–fair and balanced?

It’s worth asking, Who can be “fair and balanced” without spending time, energy, and attention to people’s experiences and viewpoints, here and abroad?

As one consumer of content, I find that the finest news now comes from non-profit sources: National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.  Rather than have ads constantly interrupting their attention, their listeners and viewers would rather pay for reliable news reports.  WNYC, New York’s public radio station, is receiving enough donations to expand its news staff!

Now is the time, Dowd recommends, that readers of content – digital or print – and those who provide it, do some serious reckoning.  Instead of losing faith in the value of quality reporting, people should realize that digital platforms are “shiny sacks with bells and whistles” that, without content, are empty. It’s not about how you’re reading, she concludes, it’s what you’re reading.  And of course she’s right–if the how is limited to the means of delivery, such as print, TV or digital ‘platforms’.

But something deeper than information or content may be at stake.  The what of reading has two other ‘platforms’ besides digital or print media.  One is planted on how well information is gathered and presented.  The other, more deeply structured, rests on how carefully and thoughtfully the content is read.  Both boil down to quality of attention—the how of content that is not concerned with cool-looking encasements, doctored photos on glossy paper, and smart-talking commentators.

Followup: After I’d written this, Michael Mudd, a former executive vice president of Kraft Foods, spoke out in the Sunday, 3/17/13 NY Times: “How To Force Ethics on the Food Industry.”  Based on first-hand experience, he informs us that, despite claiming only to provide what the public asks for, the food industry has for years made “relentless efforts” to “increase the number of ‘eating occasions’ people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.”  In their pursuit of shelf life and profits, food companies ignored warnings of the dangers of obesity and potentially toxic preservatives.  Mudd urges action:  Tax sugary drinks, snack foods, candy and sweet baked goods; use the revenue to subsidize healthy foods for the poor and educate people about healthy eating and exercise.  Make mandatory federal guidelines for marketing food to children.  Display the calorie count of all menu items in chain restaurants and vending machines.

Excellent suggestions, from an expert.  But will legislators be able to overcome food industry lobbyists armed with big bucks for campaign donations?  We wish them—the legislators—courage and perseverance.  Meanwhile, we can thank the content providers, and apply the information to our own lives.  Psychologists call the latter action executive attention.  It has an authoritative ring, don’t you think?  I like the fact that the executive here is simply the one paying attention and acting upon it responsibly.  It puts things on a more manageable scale.

See my next post for a personal followup.

Attention Lurking in the News #3: On Courtship and Friendship

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“The End of Courtship,” an almost tragic piece in the New York Times (Sunday, 1/13/2013, by Alex Williams) sat on my desk for days, taunting me to take it on, even as it reduced me to mute pessimism.  Who could not sympathize with young people immersed in the alternate reality of smartphones, texting and sexting more comfortably than ‘face time’ – an ugly term for something essentially miraculous.  No one seems to have coined “ear time” yet, but telephone conversation is sliding gradually down into the same ‘social delete’ file.

The growing absence of real-time attention seems to underlie the crisis among 20-somethings who, after the hook-up culture of college, haven’t a clue how to enter a more grownup m.o. where actual courtship can occur.

On behalf of the 20-somethings mentioned by Williams, I felt bereft.  A callow college grad whose idea of a date was to text a girl at 10 p.m., with the grand idea that she join him and a bunch of his friends at a bar! (Probably a sports bar, splattered with wide screens blaring football.)  Ah, the hook-up scene, devoid of romance, an insult to public intelligence.

On the other hand, I’ve taught college kids in their 20s and a bit older, and most manage to muddle through.  They learn the intricacies of coded text and communicate at breathtaking speed, compared to how folks of my generation used to slog along with dial phones, awkward smiles across the cafeteria, and excruciating blind (or blinded by lust and fear of missing out) ‘real dates’ for movies and cheap meals.

Many of my peers never dated in high school.  Nevertheless, or perhaps for that reason, when they got to college my generation clumsily ushered in what used to be called the New Morality.  (Millennials would recognize it as a prehistoric version of hook-up culture.)  That was when ‘good girls’ stopped saving themselves for marriage, and not a few found themselves frantically searching for abortionists.

Nowadays college grads don’t seem to know how to tell dates apart from non-dates or networking dates, let alone courtship.  A few decades ago things may not have been as impersonal as hooking up, but today’s 20-somethings have my sympathy.  Maybe so many prefer to socialize in groups because it takes pressure off those struggling to earn a decent income in a long recession, who can’t afford dinner and a show.

No doubt there’s some kind of safety in numbers.  When that clueless guy surrounded himself with friends before inviting his first-time ‘date’ to a bar, his pals were his posse and his vetting panel.  He probably hoped they’d help draw this new girl out, and he’d see if she liked the same people he liked.  Rational so far. But waiting till 10:00 the night of the date to text her? That’s what made him a twerp.  No respect.  Would he do that to a friend, or someone he wanted to become a friend?

Here’s where friendship and courtship cross paths.  Both require respect, and both run on the quality of attention.  It’s what makes dates and courtship real rather than virtual.

Let’s take a broader turn here, into friendship.  We need a wider spread of sympathy, beyond the 20-somethings to everyone whose friendships and love lives have suffered from the impersonality and brevity of smart-phone communication.  The public budget of face and phone time have been subjected to painful cuts across the board, and many of us are bereft.

My own courtship and marriage happened before e-mail, and though my husband and I have smart phones, we almost never text each other.  Thank heavens.  But our friendships have often been short-circuited by digital devices.  And—not to say anything new—as one grows older, friendships take on amazing importance.  Perhaps right up there with marriage and romance.  Let me illustrate with one sad example.

My husband and I used to take ballroom dance lessons from a gifted teacher, a former world champion in that style.  We grew to love her and became friends as well as students.  Then she moved to the Southwest, and—never often enough for us—traveled back East occasionally for a few days coaching the dancers left behind.  At first she would phone us a few weeks before each trip, telling us of the dates and letting us choose our times with her.  These calls gave us a chance to catch up on each other’s lives beyond the necessarily brief exchange of small talk during lessons.  Each time she called it was a joy to hear her voice again, a pleasure to be thought of.

After a year the phone calls gave way to a more efficient system: group e-mails. ‘Hello – I’ll be in your area 3 days next month….  Let me know the lesson times you’d like and I’ll get back to you.’  We missed her perky voice, but at least we could send her a chatty e-mail reply and get a warm response.

Then her e-mails morphed into text messages.  We did not check our cellphones as regularly as our computers for e-mails, and sometimes discovered a notice from her when few or no lesson times were still available.  Texting left no room to chat. We still had her e-mail address, but using it seemed so yesteryear.  We began to wonder whether a friendly e-mail might be an imposition.  No one called anymore except fundraisers, robo-venders and the odd dinosaur friend.

Our lovely dance coach got married, had a baby, and hasn’t done much traveling since.  Phone conversations with her belong to the distant past.  I imagine it’s like that for many people who no longer call when a text will do.  Surely they miss the sound of others’ voices, the chats, and feel deprived of priceless, genuine human contact.  Not that they’d say anything about it.  They might be branded untechno-savvy.

It’s not just the voice that matters, of course.  ‘Face time’ (ugh!) is even more precious, for the giving and receiving of a steady gaze–that is, if those doing it aren’t trying to sneak in a few texts at the same time–plus those almost forgotten subtleties of facial expression, body language, and shared silence.  Delivering attention in person is the gold standard.   As mentioned before [See Introduction & Welcome], full attention is empowering.  But when ‘face time’ isn’t possible, the phone call comes in a close second.

On the street I overheard a young woman excusing herself on her smartphone: “I called you because I’m too lazy to text.”  ‘Gee thanks,’ I thought snidely.  Then I thought of our dear former dance teacher, and how thrilling it would be to get a similar call from her.  ‘Oh, I’m so glad you chose to be lazy,’ I would say. ‘It’s wonderful to hear your voice.’  Then we’d chat, and reconnect, and I’d close by telling her to be lazy and call me anytime.  It should happen to all of us.  We all need that kind of attention.  It makes friendship and courtship real.

Attention Lurking in the News, #2: On Grieving and Consoling

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Doubtless I am one of many readers surprised and moved by a guest commentator who appeared in Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed column the day after Christmas in the New York Times.  Dowd introduced Father Kevin O’Neil as a family friend and priest with a rare gift: the ability to “lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them.”  Given the devastating recent killings of innocent children, benevolent teachers and first-responders, it was an inspired decision by Dowd to pass the editorial baton to someone who could offer a “meditation” on what she refers to as our “tear-soaked Christmas.”

Father Kevin’s meditation is no lofty homily on why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people.  He claims to have nothing useful to say to the bereaved and the dying, nothing that would convince them of God’s all-encompassing power and wisdom when they are faced with senseless violence and death.

But he does have something useful to say.  Just not on those matters.

Though he cannot answer “Why?” let alone “Why, God?” he admits to staying with the dying and the bereaved, praying with them for hours to let them know they are not alone in their suffering and grief.  Sometimes he talks with them, sometimes he just shares their miserable silence.

Undignified as it seems, I dare to whisper: You can also bet he does not steal a few minutes to check his tweets, e-mails, or text messages.  What does that boil down to?

The highest quality attention, that’s all.  Just sitting with someone in pain.  No distractions.  Nothing much to say.  No brilliant insights.  No philosophical, theological, sociological, or psychological explanations.  Why is that so great?

Imagine you are a quantum of so-called “dark energy,” that invisible force that comprises most of the universe, far more than the physical matter (a mere 4%) in it.  Just being there for someone who’s grieving or otherwise suffering has the power to get them through a most difficult time.

Think back to those unclaimed babies in the far corner of the maternity ward, missing the one thing they needed to live.  (See Introduction/Welcome.)   We don’t have to be a gifted priest, let alone a religious person, to do the simple thing that sustains another.  All this priest did was to be fully present, without answers but with willingness to show up…suppressing any compulsion to multitask.

With or without belief in God, we might agree on a more basic truth, that attention is necessary for survival.  On the most essential level it is simply being there, giving someone our attention, no answers required.

And if quantum physics has any validity, we can be there for someone at a distance.

Attention Lurking in the News, #1: Keeping Love Alive

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There will be more of these, so I’ll number them.

Quite often I find myself reading something supposedly about something else, only to find that it’s actually about attention.

The first to catch my eye recently was an article on page one of the New York Times Sunday Review, 12/2/12, fetchingly titled “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.”  It was written by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor from U. Cal. Riverside, author of a forthcoming book, “The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.”

(Jane E. Brody, the NYT’s Personal Health columnist, further comments on this piece in her January 15th column, “That Loving Feeling Takes a Lot of Work.”)

Lyubomirsky bases her essay on studies of couples married for 15 years.  First comes the unshocking observation that newlyweds tend to enjoy a burst of happiness—given the technical term “passionate love”—for about two years.  During this phase, she writes, one can “experience great happiness while being stuck in traffic or getting our teeth cleaned” because we are on a cloud held aloft by intense longing and attraction.  Not all of us recall being blissed out by dental sessions and snarled traffic when we were smitten.  We might relate more to Lyubomirsky’s reference to the 2004 movie “Before Sunset.”  In it, two former lovers meet up a decade after their intense romance, and agree that if they had stayed so in love they would have made nothing of the rest of their lives.

Nature, it appears, helps even things out a bit so the organism can survive.  Viewing passion from the angle of attention, we have to admit that when passion rules so much attention gets channeled toward the beloved that the basic things that sustain us—like eating, sleeping, and accomplishing things so we feel we are contributing something of value to the world—lose out on the invisible energy that keeps them, and us, going.

Humans (and probably most other complex organisms) are geared for routinization—technically called “hedonic adaptation.” Interestingly, this adaptation cuts many ways, negative and positive.  It enables us to endure the suffering of poverty, illness, failure, and loss of loved ones.  But it also draws our attention away from the pleasures of luxury, success, and gratified passion.

Attention, though capable of intense concentration, likes to roam free of fetters, including the fetters of suffering and wonderful pleasures.

From an attending metaphysician’s viewpoint, it becomes obvious why material possessions lose their luster more quickly than people.  Which is the more moving target, therefore the greater challenge, to one’s attention?  How long, usually, can an elegant new car, a designer gown, or even the latest coolest electronic device command one’s interest, compared to a human being, whose interests and moods can change, and whose thoughts can explore and mature?  The former are products of human skill, and do not change unless reproduced or modified by the latter.  And human skill is ever changeable.

So people usually win out when it comes to commanding our attention longterm.  Nevertheless, those we become familiar with tend to lose that exciting mystery of the unknown.  Guess who loses it first.  This truly was a surprise.  According to the research, women lose interest in sex first, “because women’s idea of passionate sex depends far more centrally on novelty than does men’s.”

Hmmm.  This puts a whole new light on men who dump their middle-aged wives to marry younger women.   Could they actually be the failed lovers of women closer to their own age whom they couldn’t keep interested?

But many women do stay committed to their husbands, even if their sexual ardor has receded.  What keeps them interested?  Could it be that they are frequently involved with children, who are always changing, growing, and surprising them?  Maybe the men they’re with also manage to grow?  It’s not impossible, as some might suspect.

Back to Lyubomirsky.  We learn that longterm happy couples adapt to the routines of life together by means of a less impassioned but comfortable “blend of deep affection and connection,” described as “companionate love.” During this longlasting  phase, research suggests that what keeps happy marriages most pleasurable is the element of surprise.

Experiments have been conducted in which couples rated activities as “pleasant” (e.g. seeing movies, visiting friends, creative cooking) or “exciting” (e.g. skiing, dancing, concert-going).  Couples who selected the exciting stuff and spent 90 minutes doing these activities each week for ten weeks reported greater satisfaction with their marriages than those who did the merely “pleasant.”

But what, we ask, makes one activity “pleasant” rather than “exciting”?  The author doesn’t explain, but does say this: “Surprise is a potent force.  When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. (My emphasis.)  We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us.”

But if we can’t arrange to hit the ski slopes or go to a dance or a rock concert, maybe we could choose to pay a better quality of attention to those around us?  It might make us happier to listen more fully when someone is offering an opinion, or describing something that happened, and respond just to that?  Rather than—as so often happens—waiting to give our own opinion or our turn to describe an event in our life?  (Not to say that our opinions and experiences should always be squelched in response to those of others.  It’s just that, if we’re really listening to someone, is it always relevant?)

Smartphones and earbuds seem to divert an awful lot of people’s attention away from the persons they are with.  I suspect many of us have seen young couples seated across from one another in restaurants, engrossed in their devices rather than each other.  To an older person, it looks like a recipe for breakup.  Social pundits bemoan the loss of conversational skill amongst the young.  It seems that they don’t know how to pay attention to one another long enough to exchange real thoughts and ideas, but they’re adept at texting others where they’re shopping or eating, or whether they like a particular movie. Young folks call it sharing. Whether actual conversation emerges is unclear, but not impossible.

For me, the most intriguing idea arrives when Lyubomirsky refers to a series of studies showing that people had longer spells of happiness “when they were at the receiving end of an unexpected act of kindness and remained uncertain about where and why it had originated.”

Wow.  The power of dark energy, of invisible attention.  For me it begs the question, Where can one get the chance to deliver an unexpected act of kindness, or a moment of surprising care?

Offhand it’s impossible to say, but I’ll offer a few modest examples.  One comes from a man I know who called a friend, an older man who’d been married over 35 years.  His friend answered the phone, but told him he’d call back later, because he did not want to interrupt the conversation he was having with his wife.  The caller was so impressed he told me about it as an item of stunning import.  You’d think this man, married so long, would have found it more than easy to take a friend’s phone call, not having to excuse himself.  But like the caller, you’d be brought up short by the quality of attention being protected by the man’s response.

Another comes from a shopkeeper who sold my husband of 13 years a pair of earrings for my birthday.  The pair he chose were unusual in color, so I took them back to see if I could exchange them for a similar pair in a color that would go with more of my wardrobe.  As soon as the proprietor saw the earrings, he remembered my husband.  “He took a long time deciding on those,” he told me in a respectful tone–the respect directed toward my husband. “I think they meant a lot to him.”  That did it.  I’m wearing them.

Then there was the time an old friend came to visit from Europe, arriving jetlagged and exhausted.  She placed her well worn shoes in the hallway next to ours, and took a much needed nap.  While she slept I took pity on her scuffed-up flats, stealthily giving them a thick coat of polish and a shine to last.  I had zero interest in having my handiwork admired, least of all to be thanked.  I just hoped, when my friend was ready to set forth, that she’d put on her comfortable old shoes and be vaguely surprised that they looked good.  Of all the fun things we did during her visit, to be able to create that minor mystery was the most delightful for me.

Would you share a moment of intriguing attention from your perspective?  Views of other attending metaphysicians are most welcome.

Introduction and Welcome

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You don’t need to be a professor in an ivory tower to do metaphysics. Not everyone, no matter how intelligent, ends up in academia, and not everyone there does metaphysics.  People do metaphysics when they ponder the whys and wherefores of life—from whatever standpoint they find themselves in.  I’ve met some serious metaphysicians who are taxi drivers, homemakers and electricians.  What makes them serious is how carefully they pay attention to what’s going on around and in them.  Here’s how I got started:

My mother was a nurse who loved to read, everything from fine poetry to the National Enquirer, from beauty tips and celebrity gossip to international news and political commentary.  She loved human interest stories the most, and shared the best bits with her family.  The one I found most intriguing has stuck with me all my life.  It was about  “boarder babies.”

There was a hospital with a maternity ward, according to this piece, where women sometimes gave birth and left their babies there unclaimed.  Note, these newborns were perfectly healthy with no birth defects.  They were cared for by nurses and aides who kept them clean, warm, and well nourished.  But the hospital staff had many other duties, and that was all they were able to do.  …What happened to those perfectly healthy little babes?

My students have been shocked, at least momentarily, to hear this.  But  occasionally a natural metaphysician among them pops up with the correct answer.

They died, that’s what.  Not of disease, or malnutrition.  They died for lack of attention.

Others ask snarkily, as some students tend to do, “You mean to tell us that babies who don’t get cuddled and cooed at give up and die, just like that?”

Think about it, I say.  You’re new to life, in a crib in a maternity ward.  Other babies’ mothers pick them up and hold them, family and friends ooh and ah and say how cute they are, and you are ignored except for the quick diaper changes, wipes, and bottles of formula.  You sense that other beings like you are getting what you want more than anything, and you are missing out.  If that’s all you knew of life, would you want to live?  Incidentally, the hospital in question formed a group of volunteers to hold and talk to the boarder babies, until they could be placed in proper homes.  After that they all survived.

Back to my real point:  Attention is vital for life.  Without it we die; with it we thrive. You would not be alive to read this if you had been denied sufficient attention as an infant.  

As this website will explore, attention may be the invisible (a.k.a. dark) force of our world.  And, as I have suggested elsewhere (See Publications Page), the lack of positive attention may be the initial source of what we feel to be evil.  On the other hand, caring attention may prove to be the essential ingredient of all personal power and achievement.

If you think this subject is vast and worth exploring, welcome to the world of attending metaphysicians!

  

FYI – A recent Op Ed column in the New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof  seems to illustrate my point rather convincingly.  It’s titled “Cuddle Your Kid!” and subtitled “What Romney and Obama can learn from rats and a teenage girl.”  Here’s the link:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/opinion/sunday/kristof-cuddle-your-kid.html?_r=0