Monday, July 2, 2018

Paying Attention

Our ability to focus is probably less than we imagine.

"The most seductive modern-day myth
is that we have an
unlimited amount of attention."
Richard Clark.

You've probably heard plenty of calls in your childhood, adolescence, or last week to "Pay attention." We may be saying it to a child, or they may be saying it to you. It may be someone trying to instruct you, but you already know. Or it may be a matter of life and death that the speaker is wanting to make sure you are understanding.

We ought to pay attention. And many times we think we are. But are we really?

Many of us are convinced we can be listening to media, have a conversation, and watch an event unfold before us all at once and "get the gist" of it all. But what is more likely the case is that we get bits and pieces of one or two, and basically miss the third. We call it "multi-tasking," but the tasks really aren't being accomplished, only nodded to.

We also try to pay attention to more things than we probably should. In the internet age we can feed our insatiable curiosity, and when we run up against the limits of our own knowledge, we google ourselves to death. I've learned more about extraneous subjects that won't really matter to me in an hour than I could have ever guessed.

Attention is focus, and we deceive ourselves if we think we can focus on an unlimited number of subjects or pursuits. I've had lots of conversations with students who are paralyzed in moving forward toward a career or a relationship because they realize that the choice to focus on one pursuit carries with it the decision to shut the door on others. And we don't want to do that! We want options; we want it all.

But one lesson that history teaches is that we can't have it all. We can't even have most of it. We must make choices, And we must choose what will deserve our attention. Which relationships, what pursuits, which subjects--there are simply too many.

I guess the expression "pay attention" gives us a bit of a clue that might help. We pay for things with currency, and the currency has value because it is limited. We have only so many dollars to spend, so we must spend it wisely. You should think of your attention as a currency you have been given--24 hours of it comes to you every day, and it can't be saved for tomorrow.

Which of your relationships will you consider valuable enough to "pay" attention to? What tasks? What subject matter?

I'm the first to admit I need to do better at this. In the current season of our church life, I've got extra responsibilities and lots of regular commitments to keep track of, and I found myself missing some things I should have caught, while paying attention to some things that turned out not to be as important. Recently I made the decision to adopt a planner other than my phone. It's pretty demanding--requiring me to plan out my days, weeks, and year around priorities. That made me write out what really deserves my attention and energy. I'm being pretty good at sticking to my plans, and I'm also trying to be more intentional about not looking at my phone all the time or answering emails as soon as I get them--instead, paying attention to the things I've decided were important enough to have this hour of my time.

Obviously (and you knew this was coming), if deepening your faith and walk with God is worthy of attention, then it should claim some of it for reading the Word (the truest source of wisdom and instruction), and prayer. The same would be true of your spouse and family (if you have those), and your church family.

What are you paying attention to today?