By: Naomi Matlow
“Instructions for living life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” – Mary Oliver
In her manifesto on today’s aggressive attention economy, How to Do Nothing, author and educator Jenny Odell discusses the etymology of the very word “attention”. With its origins in Latin and Old French, “ad” means to or toward and “tendere” means stretch. Interestingly, the very roots of the word illuminate an active quality to paying attention, as opposed to a passive gaze. When we pay attention we are stretching ourselves, looking deeper, actively uncovering something that would not be revealed to us if we were to close our eyes and sit back.
Like Jenny Odell, American poet Mary Oliver knew this intimately. Her poems are all about paying attention and taking deep notice of the natural world and as a result, uncovering meaning and universality in the human experience. Today, perhaps more than ever, there are so many things, in varying dimensions and to confusing levels of importance, calling for our attention. With the 24-hour news cycle and encyclopedias/televisions/stereos/constant communication devices in our back pockets at all times, how do we pay attention to where we are paying our attention?
Paying attention to what matters to us deep down, or even mindfully paying attention to the intricacies of a butterfly, for example, should not be easy, for in its essence it is a stretch. Paying attention is not our default setting as humans and that is evident in the word’s very origins. Why do athletes stretch before a big game? It is not just to limber up their muscles, it is also to get in the mental space of what they are about to do. Physically stretching signals our bodies to be present, paying attention signals our mental states to be present too. And when we are present and paying attention, we open up more space for awe.
Aldous Huxley wrote in The Doors of Perception, “the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul.” And how do we transcend our daily monotony? Through being awed when we pay attention.
Laughing with new friends under the stars on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, chatting with a local paisa over a fresh cup of Colombian coffee in Medellin, examining the rolling rice fields of Bali, or sitting in the sand watching the most epic pink sunset in Nicaragua, are moments that demand us to pay attention and our reward is utter awe. Jenny Odell writes that these moments of deep discovery and appreciation can exist anywhere we choose to pay attention, including our own backyards. Yet, she also writes that there is something to completely immersing ourselves in new surroundings, where we are already open to new experiences, that makes paying attention more readily accessible. Sometimes when we are far from home we pay attention like it is our job. And maybe it is?
Paying attention is a lifetime of work and something that we must remind ourselves to do in every moment. But we also must remind ourselves that it should be hard. It should be hard work that takes concentration and perseverance, like all worthwhile things are. And like Mary Oliver writes, it is the first instruction to living a life.