Are You Paying Attention?

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close up of dandelion seeds flower

I think about how we treat the people and things that matter most.

The way we “Maybe later, kiddo” our children who want us to play with them, or want to capture our undivided attention while demonstrating something that’s important to them but maybe less so to us.

The way we deliver some snide comment during an argument to the person we profess to love while leaving the house in the morning before work.

The way we are totally oblivious to miracles like electric outlets, light switches, running water, indoor plumbing, safe neighborhoods, the mobile web, stocked pantries, ice cubes, appliances, motor vehicles and on-demand high-definition video.

We take creature comforts for granted until they’re unexpectedly unavailable.

If I’d somehow known one morning that it would be the last time I’d ever see or speak to my wife again, would I even think about saying some shitty thing I don’t really mean before driving off like a huffy prick? Would I even leave her side for a second? On the last day?

How many dismissive “Maybe later, kiddo”s are you dishing out if you know there’s no tomorrow for one or both of you?

Almost everyone is going to be more mindful of their priorities, the things they want to do and say, the people they want to be with, and how they want to be remembered if we all somehow knew: This Is The Last Day.

I don’t mean to be morbid.

But I think it’s obvious that we’re capable of focusing our attention on the things that matter most when we’re painfully motivated to.

And since people die unexpectedly every day, one wonders why we’re all so good at Blissful Unawareness with the frequency we are, but more importantly, with the most precious things in our lives.

Paying attention is hard. I feel ridiculous even typing that. But all I need to do to prove the point is remind you that breathing is just about the most critical and fundamental condition required to be alive, and deep, mindful, intentional breathing is a super-healthy thing to do mentally, physically, and spiritually, and many people know it.

But: When is the last time you were aware of your breathing?

We Have a Vision Problem

Or at least I do.

We have a nasty habit of only valuing things which interest or impress us, while dismissing the things and people who don’t.

My wife was passionate about marching band-related things. And I was a narrow-minded shit eater, so I would poke fun at it, acting as if the marching band high school or college kids’ interests and skills were somehow inferior to those of the football players I was there to watch and which interested me.

I wouldn’t stop there. If I was met with resistance, I’d walk everyone through my “irrefutable” logic about how football programs generate most of the athletic program money for both high schools and colleges, and how millions of people tune in to watch football games on television while not many people tune into marching band shows, even if there were such a thing.

I was right. Right?

You better not be nodding. I was totally NOT right. And even if there was a way to be “right” in an opinion-based argument, why would we exert energy shitting all over something that means so much to the people we love?

I think “Because we’re assholes” comes close to hitting the mark.

Maybe you think playing Pokémon GO, or studying backgammon, or pursuing careers in ballet, or commercial fishing, or comic book stores, or personal training, or music, or golf course design, or alternative health food stores, or laundromats is stupid, and so are all of the people who like those things.

I still accidentally judge things without fully understanding them. I accidentally do it when I’m not paying close enough attention.

We often don’t SEE things as they are.

Like the advanced gymnast or ballerina leaving the avid basketball fan unimpressed, even though the gymnastics feat or the ballet routine might have required more strength, discipline and athleticism than some great basketball play.

I watched Straight Outta Compton for the first time this weekend. It’s the story of how the rap group N.W.A. flipped popular music on its head in the late-1980s with raw, profanity-laced gangster rap that described daily life on the hard streets of Compton, Calif. for hip-hop legends Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E.

The movie was awesome if you can handle the graphic language and subject matter. I’m sure many people can’t. And I can understand why nearly 30 years ago, parents who love their children didn’t want them listening to young men lyrically celebrate gang violence while championing gratuitous sex and using worse language than George Carlin and Andrew Dice Clay.

How many times have you heard it (almost exclusively from white people)?: “Rap?! That’s not even real music!”

I’ll let musicians debate what is or is not music.

Perhaps a better question is: What is art?

Many people obsessed with Conway Twitty, Iron Maiden and Creedance Clearwater Revival went out of their way to lift up the music they love while tearing down this new thing that sounded, felt, and looked different.

I’m not asking people who love rock and country music to “like” rap music. People are allowed to like whatever they want, which is kind of the entire point.

I am suggesting that I think if we really SAW what these men did and do—mindfully—for what and why and how it was, maybe more of us would respect the artistic genius involved in sampling tracks and writing rhymes. Do the Rascal Flatts really have more talent than Method Man?

This idea of SEEING things as they are—with mindfulness—is important to me, and I think, should be to the world.

People see NASCAR racing on TV and they think it’s easy and boring because it’s just a bunch of people turning left over and over again, and since most of us drive cars, maybe we all secretly think we could do that too.

But when you see what a pack of 43 cars looks like with just a couple feet of room to the front, rear, and sides of them while screaming down a straightaway at 200 miles per hour, you really SEE what it is.

People see DJs playing music at a party or night club and they sometimes think it’s easy or unimpressive because it’s just some person playing other people’s music, and since most of us play other people’s music, maybe we all secretly think we could do that too.

But when you see what DJ AM could do to mash up musical genres, and transition from a rock track, to a hip-hop track, to an electronic house music track with flawless beat transitions, and making sure the final lyric in the previous song flowed seamlessly into the lyrics of the new song live with real vinyl records with a thousand-person audience, you begin to SEE the talent for what it is.

A lot of us don’t necessarily “like” things, but we grow to appreciate them because of some personal experience we have that helps us achieve perspective.

We don’t necessarily walk away loving poetry slams or the sport of hockey, but when we understand what something’s about—when we SEE them for what they really are—everything changes.

Value and appreciation rise. We treat things better. We enjoy life more because now there’s more to enjoy.

Sometimes I don’t pay attention to things, and then life problems emerge.

Sometimes I don’t pay attention to people, and then a bunch of things break—like homes and families.

Sometimes I don’t SEE a thing or a person or a situation or a talent or an opportunity or a lesson for what it really is.

I don’t see the miracles, nor respect the talents, nor appreciate the opportunities in front of me, and it’s not because I’m blind, or obtuse, or ungrateful.

If there was only a whisper: Pssst. Pay attention! THIS matters!, I think maybe I’d drop everything for a few extra minutes of laughter and joy with a little boy who’s growing up too fast, or that I would have during my marriage, or that I’d SEE others and their differences and life’s many opportunities as they really are.

But maybe the whispers are already there. Maybe it’s the tuning and listening that’s the problem.

You know—to the people closest to us.

The things that matter most.

23 thoughts on “Are You Paying Attention?”

  1. Ah, paying attention. Always my lament, that I’ll miss something, or that I’ve already missed something. A good reminder, always. (Marching band rocks, by the way. But what do I know? My DI sport brought no money to my HS or college…)

  2. Hi Matt,

    You said, “How many dismissive…are you dishing out if you know there is no tomorrow for one or both of you?”

    It happened. So quickly…I spent several hours alternating between tears and grasping for breath.

    He died of a massive hear attack In his front yard. He was fifty-two years old. His son, my beloved grandson was at school. He did not see the emergency personnel try for almost an hour to revive his dad.

    It was almost a year to the day that the two of them were re-united after being separated for three years because of irreconcilable differences between his parents.

    His dad was buried on June 3rd. I had asked him several months ago to try to quit smoking, I said, ” You must know how vital you are to Alex’s happiness.” He replied that he had been seriously thinking about it.

  3. What a sweet post, Matt.

    I think you’ve once again highlighted some differences between men and women’s brains. Of course there is some variation, some individuality, but in general men sound just like you. Whereas women are so tuned in, so focused on all the details, we can become overwhelmed. There’s a real complementary thing that can happen, where men can bring distance to all those details and allow us to see the forest rather than all the trees. Women can really help men to notice that there are actually trees in the forest.

    The more we can relate to one another within that natural framework the happier we tend to be. My husband used to really tick me off, his failures at tuning in and listening, but really it’s not his fault, that’s simply very challenging for many men. Conversely I can give you every detail, every emotional and psychological undercurrent, but what I can’t do so well is tune it out and stop listening. Believe it or not that’s what many women need to do, just as men need to learn how to tune in and listen once in a while.

    1. Its not a man v woman thing, I know of at least two and probably more woman female lady’s who flat out stopped listening to me, engaging with me as I am and repecting my perspective, even if they thought I was being crazy, I was being needy, I was being ungreatful. My own mother did it to me as a teenager too!

      Its such non sense you seem to think men are pathetic thoughtless creatures who can’t take a few moments to appreciate the people in their life, and tune into their perspective, if a man is clued in and trying for a connection, they can do it, men can be observant as heck if they need to be!

  4. Well written and thought provoking. I’m on the opposite end of this I think. I feel pressure to see and remember everything. I must pay attention to everything and everyone and somehow do r all at ten same time. I’d love to a some moments where I don’t have to pay such close attention and walk away feeling human instead of guilty.
    Even so, great thoughts.

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  6. I realise that you probably get a million comments, messages, emails etc and that you probably don’t have time to read them all, let alone reply (because you’re become so huge – well done!) but I would love to hear your thoughts on my situation… I’m at a crossroads with my boyfriend of 4.5 years because I’m at an age where if I want to have kids, I kind of need to get on with it (and we both desperately want kids). But before that can happen, there is a need for a certain level of commitment between us. I don’t care about getting married but just some level of long term commitment. He loves me and wants to have kids with me, that is not in question, but he’s terrified of making that commitment/having kids *just in case* it doesn’t work out in the long run. His parents went through a divorce when he was 12 and his father has been married 3 times so he’s seen and been through a lot and obviously doesn’t want to repeat the same mistakes. Of course it’s more complicated than that but he’s basically hinging everything on a ‘what if everything falls apart in 10 years time’ and he’s been struggling with it (and I’ve been patiently waiting) for over a year now. He tells me that he wants to be able to commit and that the thought of losing me kills him but that it’s not that simple and he can’t do it unless he’s 100% sure. Is anyone ever 100% sure? Statistics are not on the side of those 100 percenters! So then maybe he’s right and we shouldn’t bother? I don’t know whether there’s any getting around that mindset or whether I should give up and move on. I guess I was just wondering, in your case after being divorced once, whether you’ll now be more nervous about commitment with someone else? And whether you think there’s a way to deal with that?

    1. GenePavlovsky

      Many men are afraid to commit, and our boyfriend’s parents gave him a pretty good reason to. Some women wait for years until he finally agrees to marry / have a child. Some of them get too tired of waiting and quit. Until your boyfriend is ready, you can’t force or push him, it must be his decision to commit. No doubt you have expressed to him many times how much you would like to be married and have children, and how nobody can be ever sure, unless they try. I think you really do love him, according to how much patience you’ve shown, so I just want to wish you luck, and your boyfriend to get more faith in happy endings. Would he be willing to go to relationship counseling together with you? And please, don’t lose hope!
      — A concerned guy who heard similar stories from girl friends much too often.

    2. My inner snark is screaming, “well, bozo, if you don’t commit to her, you’re right, it WON’T work out, because she’ll be moving on. So do ya want a GUARANTEE that this ends, or just a possibility?”

      Life offers you zero guarantees. ZERO. He will never, ever, ever be able to 100% guarantee you that it will work out – so either he’ll take that risk with you, or he won’t.

      Hugs. I do agree with counseling, but please be mindful of YOU and what YOU want out of life – don’t put a decision on hold for so long that you lose that option and sacrifice that.

  7. Let me be perhaps the first person here to agree, Yes, you were and asshole! Also, Now you are not!

    This could be a gender-neutral post though, as both men and women fall prey to this. I try not to judge and when I do, I’m usually at least aware of it, but part of that came with age for me.

    The “paying attention” part can be hard but is also a habit to be cultivated. I learned how to pay attention by having to go through a lot of bad, bad times and realizing later just what you are saying, I think: being present in the moment and in relationships is the way to experience things, not just think about them or do them.

    Great post.

  8. I will admit that living on a farm for the past year and a half has changed the things that I am grateful for. There’s nothing like having the pump that pulls water from your well breaking for a week and finding that you’re exceptionally extra grateful for all of the snow that fell the week before, because you can gather it, melt it in the house and boil it to be used while waiting for the pump ordered at the store twenty minutes down the main road to be delivered and used to replace the broken one.

    I certainly pay more attention to times spent with my sister’s kids in the summer now that it’s halfway over and I know they’ll be gone for most of the day soon when school starts again and it’ll just be me and the animals for most of the week while they go to school and their mom goes to work.

    I wouldn’t have noticed as much before we moved out here, because there was so much more media and people around. Now, I know I will miss them for several hours five days a week.

  9. Both men and woman do this, but men aren’t taught how to engage long term with a person intensely for how they are and genuinely see the other perspective, for some men that emotional labour isn’t a thing they learnt and they lose track of the importance of it. Its like all ski!!s, you have to tag it!

    As I mentioned before, some people go “slack” once they think they have a sure thing going, and its how you kill that “sure thing”. Nothing is a sure thing, and you forgetting to listen or take seriously another persons perspective who you want in your life will alienate that persons closeness to you.
    Hey, maybe it was my fau!t for not being noisy about my problem, but maybe it was their fault for not listening to me seriously. Taking it on board.

    As I said before, men and woman do this, people who don’t treasure their connections and don’t give but do take do engage in these behaviors! Its basically a form of neglect.

  10. Mindfully. Yup. That’s definitely something that everyone needs to do. I love your point on why sometimes people try really hard to crap all over your point of view, or thing you like doing, just because they’re trying to make a point and during this process it totally looks like they’re not in love with you at all.

  11. I for one would benefit from some mindfulness exercises. I struggle with not needing to do ALL THE THINGS RIGHT NOW – and relationships suffer while I drown myself in minutiae.

    1. That’s a very me-thing.

      I suck for not practicing harder.

      I get “too busy.” And then things suffer. Which is the ENTIRE POINT OF EVERYTHING.

      We should all punch ourselves in the face, sometimes. For the thing we don’t even know we’re doing wrong.

  12. I think there are 4 levels of the marching band/football story.

    1. Being respectful of other peoples likes is *basic* relationship skills (I am sure you agree).

    2. Finding facts that help to understand what it is that the other person enjoys or agrees about X thing. Easier to do with some better relationship skills for music, or hobbies or things that don’t have clashing values underneath.

    3. But what if there ARE differences that are deeply meaningful to both of you about X idea or thing? THAT to me is the harder differences to deal with maturely. A small example: maybe someone doesn’t like the early Hip Hop because they find it deeply misogynist for example and other person say that the “art” should matter more. Of they find the money and attention given to football rather than other sports to be disturbing rather than a reason for it-while the other person thinks the enjoyment or benefits to players and fans outweighs that. Have to be able to navigate those respectfully too.

    4. Extra layer of difficulty if you have to make a big decision on it in your actual life with big underlying differences.

    We need all 4 levels of skills to be there for a

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Matt Fray

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