‘Paying Attention’ Is Overrated
Life during lockdown has demanded constant, unwavering attention. Zooms beget Zooms: school committees, work meetings, happy hours. They blur together, and I find myself zoning out as I nod along with the other disembodied heads.
And then there are my children, stalking me while I’m trying to finish some work, looking over my shoulder, breathing their cheesy-popcorn breath in my face, until I snap my laptop shut and sweetly say, “How can I help you, dearest offspring,” which, weirdly, comes out of my mouth as, “What do you want?”
They want my attention, of course they do. All. The. Time.
I’ve honed the art of being attentive without actually engaging. I know how to point my eyes at whatever I’m supposed to be looking at, mutter small affirmations, interject with mm-hmmm or ha ha (ideally not during a part where someone’s pet hamster dropped dead).
But over these many months marooned on the island of home, I have finally figured out that paying attention is highly overrated. The thing that all our families, friendships, and endeavors really need is connection.
People who maintain close relationships are the ones who are happiest and healthiest. In the Before Times, I would have said that yes, I had many close relationships; after all, there were a lot of people in my life, which was so busy: school, work, yoga, play rehearsal, soccer practice, grocery store, concert, drinks, conference. I texted friends, they texted back, we tried and failed to make dinner plans, but we believed dinner would happen eventually.
I would have said that I paid more than enough attention to my life and the people in it, thank you very much. But attention is the emotional equivalent of being busy: it’s the data entry of relationships. It is no substitute for connection.
Here’s the difference:
Attention: Nice drawing, honey.
Connection: I’ll draw the house, you draw the trees.
Attention: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Connection: Let’s brainstorm how to approach this issue with your (boss, friend, boyfriend).
Attention uses auxiliary language, particularly in the first person: I must, I should, I need to, usually as an excuse for not doing something else. Connection lives in action.
Attention curates time: it “likes” your friends’ and acquaintances’ and strangers’ social media posts; it arranges play dates and drinks dates and carpools.
Connection goes for a walk with a friend and leaves the phone at home.
Attention books the DJ, orders the flowers, and buys the outfit.
Connection takes off its shoes and hits the dance floor.
Attention sends a text.
Connection is asking what the people in your life really need. In the case of my tween, it’s a lot of snuggling with no obvious purpose. As much as she rolls her eyes and snaps at me, she needs reassurance that she’s still my baby; that she is secure in a topsy-turvy world. Our connection anchors her as she (literally) changes from one day to the next.
In pre-pandemic times, my marriage sometimes felt like ships-passing-in-the-night; now it’s more like neighbors waving at each other from their docks. We can’t go on dates — Where would we go? Who would babysit? — but we can connect over activities, even mundane ones. Turns out, my husband is an expert late-night-pedicure-giver.
In the friendship department, I’ve rediscovered the delight of the long phone call. Texting is a vending machine snack compared to the long, satisfying meal of a long talk with an old friend.
The point is, trying to pay attention to everything will just make you feel like Lucille Ball working the chocolate factory line. Instead of stuffing bonbons down your blouse, let them go, and focus your energy where it matters. Here are a few ideas to help guide you in the right direction:
Curate activities, not time. Schedules — for work, school, chores — are necessary. But squeezing activities into a time slot makes fun feel like work. Go for quality over quantity: even President Obama made time to sit down for dinner with his family most nights. In my house, we’ve been devoting one night a week to things like the Wedding of Bunny and Snowball; The Big Basement Rave; and Family Fashion Show.
Leave the kids alone. On screens again? Whatever. Bored? It might even be good for them. Get your work done now, while ignoring them, so that you have time later to build the World’s Most Awesome Fort or binge-watch Nailed It! together — without checking your phone once.
Unwind offscreen. Nothing collects attention like social media, but endless scrolling is a recipe for depression and loneliness. Writing in a journal, calling a friend, or playing a board game are all better for you than basking in the blue glow of your screen. You don’t have to be up on every last hashtag or Twitter trend. I promise.
Seek green: One of the best ways to focus, connect, and clear your head is to go outside. Drive to your closest nature preserve; bring a picnic or a book, a sketchpad or a deck of cards. It’s amazing what a few outdoor hours can do for your state of mind. Added parent bonus: the safe haven of the back seat of the car is where kids often tell you things they would never reveal over the dinner table.
Attention is about logistics. Connection is about participation. Once you stop trying to pay attention to every single thing, you can find space to participate fully in your own life, even — or especially — when life itself has become almost unrecognizable.