Paying Attention

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.”

-Jenny Odell, “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

If we are what we repeatedly do, then what are we when many of us cannot really *do* anything while we’re self-isolating?

For now, at least, we are what we pay attention to.

I’ve noticed a big change in what I pay attention to over the past few weeks, and I’m sure you, dear reader, have too. 

I’m still paying attention to my business, my health, and learning new things. If anything, I’m paying more attention to those things. But that’s not what I mean.

I mean that I’m paying more attention to anyone that’s being helpful, or anything that’s adding meaning. I think that I’m what Fred Rogers suggested that kids do in a scary situation: looking for the helpers. This isn’t solely because I need help (though I think we all could use a little help now), but because I want to remember who was good when it was easier not to be, who was doing something meaningful when it was hard to do anything at all. 

I’m hopeful that a positive outcome of COVID-19 is that we can reevaluate what is essential in our lives. These are the things that enrich us and nourish our health and bring us joy, not things that distract us and focus on “engagement” above all else. If what you’re paying attention to has someone on the back-end trying to come up with new ways to artificially enhance your engagement by eliciting a reaction, it’s probably non-essential. 

I’m hopeful that we get outside more, that we read more, that we learn more, that we reach out to people we love more, that we’re kinder to people more, that we assume positive intent more, and that we challenge ourselves more. I’m hopeful that we pay attention to the essentials. I think we will, for the most part.   

I’m concerned that this will just lead to renewed efforts to infiltrate and monetize our new objects of attention. Facebook figured out how to monetize friendship. Nothing is safe.

But with any luck, we can limit damage to our current social environment and focus on paying attention to what helped us get through this shitty time. We’ll remember the people that reached out, and see them more. We’ll send a letter instead of a DM. We’ll remember the companies that didn’t lobby against paid sick leave and reward them with our business. We’ll remember our favorite restaurant that somehow didn’t close for good (and maybe support them while they’re not truly open), and we’ll make sure they know they were missed. 

And I don’t know who needs to hear this, but: We should also remember what it felt like to shower before 9am.