Pay Attention


I've long had this habit, probably since shortly after I finished college:

When I'm at an event where intoxicating substances are served and I notice somebody I'm with has consumed said intoxicants beyond a certain manageable point, I immediately pull back on my own consumption.

That's just my instinctive reaction: One of us has to maintain some semblance of rational consciousness… and if it's not going to be you, then it's got to be me. This habit has served me well for many years, helping to ensure that I and any companions I'm with make it home safely, with minimal social impropriety or embarrassment. It's just what you do, as I see it, to look out for the people in your life.

In order to pull off this practice successfully, alas, one must be a fairly observant person… paying attention to the subtlest alterations in speech pattern or stance, the gradual-but-slippery disappearance of inhibitions, so that preemptive actions can be taken before the situation devolves into more precarious territory. It's a quality many of us developed early on, having had to test the constantly-shifting emotional temperature of variably-moody family members… to time our interactions accordingly, in order so we might get what we need and/or minimize the hazards.

If we were to extrapolate outward on this premise more broadly, then, we can easily see why it presently behooves us to pay even closer attention to the collective goings-on. Across divergent political persuasions, a lot of us agree we've hit a point where it seems many of our fellow citizens have imbibed too many attention-hijacking intoxicants—deceptive news-style propaganda, consumer spending beyond our means (leading into indentured servitude to banks and credit-card companies), obesity, drug addiction (of both illegal and big-pharma-sponsored varieties), dazzling technological spectacle at every turn—such that their relative unconsciousness presents a seductive invitation to danger. The 'drunker' everyone else gets, the clearer we ought to aim to become.

I notice this need to pay closer attention pretty starkly when I'm behind the wheel of my car, for instance. It should be noted I reserve a special place in my concept of Hell for people who text-message on their mobile phones while operating a motor-vehicle, as I've written about before. I am galled there are individuals who care so little for the safety of others with whom they share social space, they will risk these others' lives merely to swap meaningless one-liners over wireless network. Sadly, though, I suspect this is an irreversible trend (despite attempted legislative intervention). In my gall, I'm apparently some sort of stodgy dinosaur.

My best immediate choice of responses, it seems, is simply to become a more attentive driver myself, assuming that anyone (and everyone?) else on the road could be texting-and-driving at any given moment. This is a logical extension of the advice my mother gave when teaching me the concept of defensive driving—you should always expect the other driver to the most stupid thing possible—which has served me quite well for many years now. (This advice was a more nuanced version of the life-lesson my father was dispensing: About 90% of people are morons.) I'm now incredibly attuned to watching for the aimless drifting and too-slow speed that are telltale signs of someone texting while driving. As I drive by an example of this, I'm consumed with intrusively glancing into the other car, to catch the culprit red-fingered and prove my self-righteous conjecture correct.

You can imagine, of course, that my obsession with how responsibly all the other drivers are behaving comes with negative consequences for my own attentiveness. Let's just say I am not my most spiritually-evolved self while on the road. Individuals who might warrant my empathic consideration, were I to meet them face-to-face, get flattened into one undifferentiated mass of 'idiots' determined to get in my way and thwart my transportational efficiency. I become agitated and profane. My driving turns jerky and aggressive. I lose a large degree of self-awareness.

And then my partner in the passenger seat appears visibly nervous and fearful next to me. I know my aggressive driving sometimes leaves him feeling unsafe (though, I argue to him and myself, I am a safe driver), but that usually isn't enough to curb my tendencies. I am finally deeply struck with an 'a-ha!' moment when he turns and tell me, 'I feel like you care more about all those people out there [as he gestures to the other drivers on the road] and what they're doing than you care about me and how I'm feeling.' Because he is right; that is what's happening. In paying such close attention to what a group of faceless others are up to, I neglect to pay attention to one individual who means so much to me… and I'm not paying close enough attention to whether I'm behaving like the person I strive to be.

One of the best and simplest things any of us can do to help make a better future is to pay attention… to our surroundings, to whether we're living in line with our inner integrity, to what the individuals we love most are feeling and doing, to what all those folks who seemingly aren't paying attention are getting themselves into, and especially to people who say one thing but do another or base their actions on statements that aren't actually true. (Words have actual meanings, you know.)

In a world where we'll increasingly be called to react on the spot to life-changing developments that appear shocking (but which likely revealed subtle warning-signs to anybody who actually bothered to notice), we who pay attention will be far better suited for first-line response. We can swerve ourselves away from the hazardous fallout of those asleep (or texting) at the proverbial wheel—and from the crimes purposely perpetrated by those exploiting the sleeping ones.

The more dissonant our public discourse becomes with what we actually observe as our reality, the more closely we must track the discrepancies. When, for instance, the US government doesn't naturally jump in on the side of a pro-democracy movement in countries like Egypt—though 'the spread of democracy' has consistently been used as a rallying-cry to defend other diplomatic or military interventions—then we can conclude that spreading democracy worldwide is not, in fact, the goal. When a Democratic (or so-called 'socialist') president agrees to cuts in infrastructure and social entitlement programs (which we are 'entitled' to because we've paid taxes to support them) to protect wealthy corporate interests, at a time when the economy is in the worst shape since, oh, er, I don't know, the last time Uranus and Pluto were squaring (in the first half of the 1930s) and Democrat FDR's 'New Deal' social investments helped the economy recover and his presidency become one of the popular ever… well, any meaningful distinction between the two mainstream parties in the US appears to have evaporated.

I've long argued against the notion of mass culture as a numbing device that deactivates a populace's intelligence; I always sought to grant individuals more credit than that. Most people aren't morons, as my father might hastily claim… more that their educational system has been dumbed-down by the same forces who profit from their ignorance. Yet it's also obvious the effect of propagandist media on popular notions of truth as 'relative' is at an all-time high, now that we in the age of Fox News must accept, as a premise, that news has a bias. While the false appearance of neutrality being dismantled by our postmodern 'sophistication' (or what-have-you) is partly a good thing, it also seems to contribute to the belief that, if we just drill home a phrase (such as 'fair and balanced') with enough consistent repetition, then it somehow becomes 'true'. Or else it doesn't really matter, as long as you flash the most dramatic music and cutting-edge, manically-paced patriotic visuals in the background.

Without a citizenry being taught the requisite critical-thinking skills for investigating the motives behind messages, those of us who are paying attention bear a responsibility: to remain clear-headed enough to share the conclusions our critical thinking has yielded us, but not in a shrill or condescending tone. None of us, after all, can pay attention to everything all at once.

All those tweets, apps, updates may drain brain (
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