Technology, love, and paying attention

I really enjoyed this post from Michael Sacasas at his blog “The Frailest Thing.” He argues that it’s not smartphones (or any other attention-grabbing gadget) per se that make it hard for us to pay attention to the people we encounter–it’s us.

It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.

Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.

Even though this is a problem endemic to the human condition, technology can exacerbate it:

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.

This made me think of a post I had recently read by Frank Schaeffer as part of his series of “12 commandments of happy parenting”:

Never give a child your divided attention once you’re playing with them, unless it’s an emergency. That doesn’t mean you should give them your attention all the time. Far from it.

Playing alone is good. But don’t be rude when you are being a hands-on parent.

Watching a young mother or father texting friends while his or her child is trying to talk to them is just plain cringe making. It’s teaching a lack of empathy and respect.

It’s also teaching all the wrong priorities about what is important in life. Don’t be surprised if you tune your child out and later your child tunes you out.

I see this all the time. I’m also guilty of it. Though I don’t have a smartphone and I generally avoid text messaging, it can be a challenge to give my kids my undivided attention. Not always, mind you–there are times when I’m fully and effortlessly engaged in some game we’re playing, or reading a book with my daughter, or making my son laugh through various facial contortions. But often–too often–my mind and attention are (at least partially) somewhere else. Maybe I’m thinking about work or worrying about something that needs done around the house. Or maybe I’d rather be reading a book or surfing the Internet.

It may also be, as some have suggested, that our multi-media, information-saturated lives (for some values of “our” anyway) are actually changing the way our minds work, diminishing our ability to maintain focused attention on one thing at a time. If so, that’s an even deeper problem.

Regardless, it does seem that Sacasas is right that giving someone our attention requires an act of will or a kind of discipline. Maybe this is partly why so many spiritual traditions have cultivated practices that require people to focus their attention. I’m thinking especially of various forms of meditation and contemplative prayer. What these practices seem to have in common is an effort to focus on a reality beyond the self–to the extent that the ego recedes into the background.

And one of the “fruits” of such practice is–ideally at least–that we become the kind of people who can more easily set aside our own desires and be attentive to others and their needs. We can certainly invoke here the example of Jesus, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to make each person he encountered feel the full force of his loving attention. To love others–including especially our children–as Jesus loves us would seem to require, at a minimum, learning to give them our attention.

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