As we hurtle into 2023 I’m thinking about one very precious commodity I have to spend this year: my attention — what I will pay attention to. Our idiom “pay attention” even implies the costly value of where and when I “pay out” my focus.
Our culture understands the value of attention. I’m typing on an iPad, which currently has 237 apps installed. (I just counted them. Yikes.) Most of those apps represent efforts to get my attention. Sometimes the app only vied for my attention at the point of inviting me to download it, but many will regularly try to focus my attention on something of someone else’s choosing.
If I do a web search for “coffee near me,” on the opening screen I count 17 different options of places to focus my attention on the digital screen, all of which have likely paid some money to have the chance to attract my attention. I have 14 news apps in order to receive daily news, three of which we pay for monthly. Every one of my news apps is trying to attract my attention — most often with bad news, injustices I should be angry about, or potential threats to my welfare that I should fear. And with almost every headline I click or article I read, I see attempts to attract my attention to stuff I should buy. So I’m paying attention to them (and sometimes even paying money) in order for them to give me some information that can be helpful, but also to invite me to buy something that, supposedly, I can live without.
When I open a social media app, I find that half or more of the posts are trying to get me to pay attention to something I should participate in or purchase, because certain algorithms have been meticulously remembering where I’ve spent my attention recently through social media clicks, web searches, emails, conversations with Alexa, and even phone calls. Those algorithms are choosing places where I’m invited to pay attention, all for the sake of someone, somewhere, making some money off me. And because the digital screen is addictive, I’m even losing track of what I might otherwise need or want because I’ve been captivated by something designed to manipulate me. It’s like I’m giving in to being controlled by something outside me for the good of someone else. And I do it because those images make me think that the thing that they are selling is good for me. And it might be good at some level. But I’m often so far down the rabbit hole of some else’s control that I can lose track of my power to choose between levels of value. To say it another way, I’ve lost myself.
What is it that I want to pay attention to? Or, more to the point, what should I pay attention to that makes me whole, gives me a sense of shalom — well-being? Then, the question is why I so readily allow others to propose a myriad of options for what I need for wholeness? What if there is actually nothing more that I need for shalom because it’s already available, already present now? I’m sure that’s an overstatement. To put it in more realistically: what if most of what I need for my well-being, including the most important things for wholeness, are already surrounding me? And what if I am voluntarily ignoring those good things already present when I give my attention to what others place in front of me as options for well-being, when in fact those things are primarily offered to me because they benefit someone else rather than actually contributing anything substantial to my shalom?
With a new year I’m hoping to foster a new awareness of where I give my attention. I feel a bit like a bobble head doll with magnets in the face, and around me are a thousand stronger magnets trying to attract my gaze. Or, more sinisterly, I feel like I’m in one of those dystopian medieval paintings of hell, where countless hands are clawing at me from all directions, trying to pull me into an abyss of distraction. But the good news is that just as quickly as I can dismiss one thought in order to think another, I can send the attention magnets and clinging wraiths away from my consciousness, as if they slip harmlessly (for the moment at least) into a hell of being ignored.
What I give my attention to shapes the architecture of the way my mind conceives reality. Political illustrations are easy to spot: some news outlet will teach me that liberal government is a vast conspiracy of wokeness where corrupt special interests are destroying the American way of life, while others will passionately warn me that conservatives are anarchic fascists fostering an anti-intellectual worldview that is dismantling democracy. Fed very much from either menu, and my brain can become addicted to one anxiety diet or the other. And the options for grabbing my attention and shaping my mind are everywhere: advertisers who tell me what to buy in order to be fulfilled, performers and athletes who offer lifestyles to immulate, purveyors of religious pablum who shrink my spiritual imagination to a reality they can control. The possiblities of distraction are endless.
The alternative is to give in to the powerful and completely undemanding force of divine reality all around me, wooing me to what is really real: a reality where God is present everywhere, in all creatures, in all things, if I’ll just pay attention. A reality that offers the shalom of knowing that God is God, and I am not — nor is any one or anything God but God. A reality where the giving and receiving of love is an infinite possiblity. A reality filled with endless gifts of truth, beauty, and goodness, waiting every moment to be noticed and opened like packages on Christmas morning.
A few days ago, driving across the flat, dry ground of the place where I live, the grayness of winter automatically registered a mental reminder of the stark plainness of my landscape. Then, remembering the new year project of paying more attention to what’s present but ignored, I thought to check my surroundings for anything beautiful that might be lurking shyly around me. And I noticed the tall dead leaves of grass covering the highway embankment, colored a light brown that’s almost golden, grass dancing in the brisk west wind, holding on to earth, patiently content to be waves of lifeless leaves, connected to roots waiting to come alive again with the chartreuse of spring, sprinkled with the brilliance of bluebonnets, buttercups, and Indian paintbrush. My mind is captured for a moment by all that treasure, hidden away under waves of gold. Just imagine the creatures thriving within and under that grass: birds, field mice, jackrabbits, earthworms, fungi. And the ground chocked full of dirt, rocks, and red clay with turquoise veins holding the grass in place. Each lump like a world of riotous microscopic reality. So, as I hurtle along at 57 mph in my old Toyota, I’m offered glimpses of beauty in a barditch that I did nothing to create or sustain: there for the eye to behold and wonder, if I’ll just pay attention.
What good gifts of beauty and truth might await me today? Gifts actually worthy of my attention in 2023.
* Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash
2 thoughts on “Paying Attention in 2023”
Thank you for this reminder to be “mindful.”
Thanks for reading, friend.