Saturday, October 26, 2013

CAN I GET YOUR UNDIVIDED ATTENTION?

from Kenneth Patchen's book Hallelujah Anyway
This week, my students and I read an article called "Bumping into Mr Ravioli" by Adam Gopnik.  In it, his three year old daughter has an imaginary friend who is always too busy to talk or play with her. What does this say about our current lives, Gopnik asks.

I teach at a community college, where in addition to taking classes, many students have not just one job, but two.  They also often speak two or even three languages.  They are busy people, communicating on many levels in many different ways.  In fact, we're all busy here in Greater Washington DC - busy being busy and keeping in touch and communicating, making sure we don't miss anything important.

But this week, something happened in one of my classes which has never happened before.  "It keeps ringing," one of my students said.

"I'm sorry?" I asked.

He handed me his cellphone, smiling.  "My phone is distracting me. Can you just keep it until after class?"

"Can you take mine too," asked another.  So I took their cell phones and put them on my desk.

"Thanks," they said.  It was unprecedented.

Maybe in trying so hard not to miss things, we are missing the present moment.  We are endlessly distracted - so connected that we become disconnected.  My students had realized this, and of their own volition, were trying to be more focused.

I frequently point out that it will be difficult to write good papers, if at the same time as writing they are text messaging, checking facebook, IM-ing their friends, and constantly pulled from the task at hand.  It's as if your brain can never experience a steady stream of thought heading in one direction.  Perhaps this is why the most productive writing often takes place in the classroom itself-  especially in writing exercises, when the room is silent for ten long minutes, and they are writing by hand in their notebooks.

Undivided attention. Wow. How many people have the luxury to pay undivided attention - or to receive someone's undivided attention these days? 

This reminds me of Freddy.

My friend Freddy was a retired colonel and a journalist writing on international security matters when we met in Brussels several years ago.  Being old, and also very disciplined, he had figured out something important about time.  "I am seventy-seven years old," he told me once, "and every minute counts."

He made his minutes count by focusing attention.  If he was making us lunch, for example,  he paid full attention to one item at a time. Slicing bread?  Full attention.  Pouring out the soup? Full attention.  Placing apples and cheese on a cutting board? That got his full attention too.  Then he'd sit down, and unfold his napkin on his lap. "Now,"  he said, looking at me directly,  "tell me what you've been doing."  His focus was flattering  and it made me feel important.  That's what your full attention can give to another person.  When I was with Freddy, I got the sense that nothing and nobody else was quite as important as me.

And because everything got his full attention,  he never had nothing to do.  If you telephoned and asked what he was up to, there was always something on his list. "First I'm going to NATO. Then I'm going for a swim.  After that I have an article in my head that I want to write, and then I'm dining with friends."  Whereas I, who had three children and a busy household and a husband with a schedule that included embassy receptions and functions, frequently felt run off my feet, and could never seem to priorize about what it was I had to do. "No, no,"  I would reply if someone asked  are you busy...  "Go right ahead." And then, while they were talking to me on the phone, I'd be making sandwiches, or supervising a child's homework or music practice, stopping to be interrupted, even from those things, all along the way.  I didn't consider it interruption back then.  Life was an endless stream of overlapping tasks.

If I wanted to get any writing done, I never had the time. So I had to do it in between other things - and I had to expect interruption.  If I'd waited for all decks to clear, I wouldn't have written a word.  As it was,  this was an important time for me and I got back into writing fiction for the first time in years.

If you want something done, so the saying goes, ask a busy person.  Because they will find the time. Is this really true? I was in my forties and Freddy lived alone.  He was occupied and focused and he had a full life, but I wouldn't have called him busy.  What a luxury to perform a task from beginning to end without being interrupted! I couldn't imagine it.  To spend all the time you want. To focus.

Yes focus is a luxury, but it also allows time to stretch out.  You fill the unforgiving minute with sixty-seconds worth of distance ran, as Kipling wrote. Or, in the words of poet Kenneth Patchen, "All at once is what eternity is."

When my students handed me their cell phones this week, it was the greatest compliment they could have paid. I hope the trend continues!




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