Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Why can’t we pay attention?


Stillness out my office window without electronic distraction

Most of us lament the increasing difficulty we have paying attention. Part of the problem is losing our ability to focus because of smart phone and social media distractions. Back in 1961, way before the World Wide Web was invented, Kurt Vonnegut examined the nature of this problem.

He wrote a dystopian story set in the future where the government enforces total equality with no exceptions. For example:  “There's one character who's deemed too intelligent, and the way they make him dumber is by forcing him to wear a radio in his ear so that they can constantly distract him with obnoxious content."⁠1

Now, thanks to modern technology, we all suffer from that ever-present buzz in our ears – not because it is forced upon us but out of our own free will. L. M. Sacasas points all this out in a recent podcast.⁠2  Certainly, losing our focus due to electronic distraction is a significant problem.

But Sacasas’ emphasis is on another kind of attention, one that thrives on stillness – something I explored in a recent column.  He called it  “a kind of openness to experience where I'm not looking for anything, but I'm ready to receive something. It's more of a contemplative stance towards my experience.⁠3

Sacasas makes clear that the stillness we need is not just an excuse to be alone with our thoughts. Rather, the purpose is to be open to what’s happening around us. That is what Buddhists and mystics like Eckhart Tolle call "living in the present moment." 

And what deserves our attention above all else?

For Sacasas, it is on our fellow human beings: He says, when he is with an individual, “whether that's a friend in conversation, the stranger that I meet in passing, I think it's good for me to be able to attend to them without distraction.” He considers this a spiritual orientation.

He quotes the philosopher and author Iris Murdoch, who equates this type of attention with love, a "kind of moral vision to see justly, to see truthfully:  'To be able to offer ourselves up in that way, in some sense, to get ourselves out of the way, getting out of the way of ourselves so that we're able to see people for who they are, to give them the gift of our attention, which honestly may be one of the most profound gifts that we can offer to somebody to be fully present before them.”⁠4

We all know how special it is when another person wholeheartedly and unconditionally attends to us. Sacasas considers giving such undivided attention to be a moral sensibility. Of course, our ability to provide such relational engagement, like our ability to focus, is being waylaid by our rush, like rats on an accelerating treadmill, to instantly respond to the onslaught of incoming emails, texts, and social media posts. 

This presents a clear and present danger. 

Sacasas warns we are coming to resemble what we pay the most attention to, that we are "starting to reflect the rhythms and the biases of those technologies." Increasingly, these machines influence how we think, molding our minds into a facsimile of the same damn electronic devices that are corrupting us.


It's the ultimate addiction, rewarding us with instant feedback that confirms all our biases. It's so tempting just to take another hit and be instantly transported into the soothing world of the electronic metaverse. 

What can we do?

The first step is to admit that our dazzling digital frontier has failed to live up to its utopian promise, predicted back in the early days of  the internet. As Hari Kunzru wrote in the current Harper’s Magazine: Instead of achieving global consciousness, we have created “a giant machine for selling ads.”⁠5

Worse yet, we now face an existential menace that is changing what it means to be a human being. On our own, we are powerless against this technological juggernaut that is arrayed against us. The key, like for AA, is to believe in a higher power because, in essence, this is a spiritual and  moral question. 

 Do we slide down the rabbit hole into becoming a machine like our electronic devices? Or do we use our attention to embrace our greatest gift, our human connection with each other?





3 ibid

4 ibid

5 Harper’s Magazine/January 2023. p. 7

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Radical Hope to Heal a Divided Nation


I took this photograph at Hampton Beach State Park in 2014

The Crow people were a proud and thriving Native American Nation until the U.S. defeated them in battle while killing off the Buffalo, the primary source of their subsistence. As their legendary chief, Plenty Coups, explained, “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” he said, “and they could not lift them up again.”⁠1

This example of human vulnerability– that of a people faced with the end of their way of life – prompted Jonathan Lear, philosopher and psychoanalyst, to write a book about the human suffering that comes about from societal collapse. 

To my perhaps warped way of thinking, I see a similarity between the psychological consequences of what happened to the American Indians and what is happening to a sizable segment of our fellow Americans today: those still imbued with that macho frontier spirit personified by John Wayne. (Please excuse the following exaggeration)

This segment of our fellow citizens, often followers of Trump, to one degree or another, still attempt to live by the creed of the Wild West: They sneer at regulations and community and worship their version of the Bible which declares nature is meant for them to possess. They march under a flag that says ‘don’t tell me what to do’ or prevent me from riding out of town on my trusty steed packing my trusty six-shooter to  patrol against dark-skinned immigrants, a constant threat like the 'Injuns’ were.

Writing this will probably get me run out of town on a rail. I'm only exaggerating this comparison to emphasize Lear's more significant point. Losing one's way of life –whether a Crow or a Trump believer – is excruciating, a psychological death. One's first inclination to fight on, as many Indian tribes did, or hold a lasting grudge, as the confederacy did after our civil war.

The Sioux and most other tribes viewed Plenty Coups as a coward for not battling the white man, but the chief understood that fighting back against the endless convoy of settlers moving west was futile. Instead, he chose to work with the newcomers by leading a delegation to Washington and negotiated a treaty with the U.S. that allowed the Crow to keep their ancestral land..“Today members of the tribe express pride that the Crow were able to keep their mountains.”⁠2

Plenty Coups' radical action flew in the face of the age-old warrior ethic never to concede, to fight to the end for your beliefs. That way of thinking was pervasive at the time, held by everyone from the cowboys to the Indians to the U.S. Army cavalry. Needless to say, this warrior ethic still flourishes, underlying U.S. Foreign policy today. 

Most thought Plenty Coups' approach of having "compassion, empathy, and the willingness to seek understanding" as weak and naive. Yet he persevered, creating a better future for his tribe through understanding and dialogue. Even today, he is remembered by his people for telling them:  "With what the white man knows he can oppress us. If we learn what he knows, he can never oppress us again."⁠3

Although it may appear that I am writing this column to infuriate both sides of our cultural divide, what I'm attempting to do is promote Plenty Coups' vision of radical hope. As Lear describes it:What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”⁠4

It's impossible to summarize Lear's book in 700 words because it is dense and complex, relying on nuance. Let me close by defining radical hope in terms of how I think it could help mend our fractured nation.

 For liberals, it means not viewing Trump supporters as 'a basket of deplorables.’ If we resist our first impulse to make moral judgments, perhaps we can feel empathy for how psychologically devastating it is to lose a way of life – the ethic of the American wild frontier – whether it is factual or increasingly hyped up on social media.

Conversely, it’s equally important that my friends who support Trump foster radical hope: to hold out the possibility that supporting community and diversity will not spell the end of a way of life  but be the start of a more productive and meaningful one.



1 Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 31-32). Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. Kindle Locations 1393-1395)

3 Ibid. Kindle Locations 1393-1395).