Why Pay Attention

I remember reading once that the best newspapers are ones that feature people.  They name names.  They contain photographs of those in the community.  The stories are about readers’ neighbors and friends and family.  People buy the paper because it has direct relevance to them.  Recently we have been receiving in the mail, unsolicited, a section of the Burlington Free Press that is about people in the community.  It contains stories about everyday people and it contains lots of photos.  Normally, I pitch those free papers, but I flip through this one every time.

I check it out because I may see someone I know in those photos.  I have seen people I know in its pages.  I was in it once, as were my children.  USA Today won’t contain pictures of anyone I know personally.  This little paper likely will.  So I open it up each time and peruse it before adding it to the pile of fire-starting material.

I thought of this little newspaper today.  This past weekend I spent some time with David Grant, who is president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  He just announced he is leaving his position.  He wrote about this on the foundation’s blog.  I subscribe to the blog through a reader.  The foundation hosts a huge poetry festival every couple of years.  It is of interest to me.  I had not made the connection, however, between David’s association with the foundation, and my own interest in it.

I find that I sometimes do this somewhat dramatically, at least in my own head–I connect two things together in one arena and then connect one of those things with something else in another arena;  and then one day a light bulb goes off that all those things are related.  I have a Eureka moment–“Hey that is related to that, and that is related that and whoa, everything is connected!”  The reason this seems so dramatic to me is that I spend a lot of my mental energy on looking for and finding connections.  Discovering how things intertwine brings me real joy. So when I find that I have missed something that, in hindsight, seems so obvious, I stumble a bit.

I had one of those moments this weekend.  “Oh, David directs that Dodge Foundation–Duh!” I thought to myself.  Today I went back and looked at the foundation’s blog and found the articles that David had written that I had previously just skimmed over.  I hadn’t noticed who had written them and so had not made a personal connection to them.  This time I read them more thoroughly.  They were interesting to me the first time, but they were more interesting to me with another read.  I had some context the second time around.  I could picture who was doing the writing and I had at least some idea of how he thinks, of what he has experienced in the world.  It made the articles more relevant.  I had a picture.

The point is, I paid more attention because I knew the author of the article.  I suppose, while the writing is of a very different type, I might compare it to a favorite poet or author.  If I have enjoyed a poet or author I am likely to pay attention if he or she comes out with a new book.  I have some context, some personal history, so I have a link to the new book.  That is what happened with David’s blog posts.  That is what happens with the local newspaper that comes in the mail.  Once I feel that I have a connection, or that I might have a connection, I pay more attention.

I think most of us do this.  The captain of the U.S. ship that was recently hijacked by pirates and then released, was from Vermont.  Vermonters paid attention.  My guess is they paid a lot more attention than Oregonians or Floridians.  They had a connection, even if it was not directly personal.  It was still personal.  We pay more attention when a neighbor is in trouble than when a stranger is.

This is why it is important for me to look closely.  When I look closely I notice more, and the more I notice the more I am likely to see connections.  Then I pay more attention.  Attention feeds attention in a positive feedback loop.  The more I pay attention, the more connections I see, and so the more I pay attention.  If all of us could stop to look closely, to ask questions, to challenge our assumptions, to simply wonder, we would see that many things are not so strange after all.  We would see that we are connected to our world.  And we would notice what we do.  And we would see how we affect those around us.  And we would better understand that all we do has consequences, good and bad.  And we would, perhaps, make more conscious and better choices.

Maybe not, but I’ve been doing my best to pay attention to what I see in the people I encounter everywhere I happen to be.  I believe if we could slow down and refect a little more, we might just take care of ourselves and our neighbors and our world better.  And that would certainly be something to which we all could pay attention.

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