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.

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.

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, #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