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.

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.

 

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, #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, #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.