As the world spins off its axis, too rapidly to track, I wake up in Brooklyn in tears, my 12-week-old baby sleeping next to me. I take a breath. I am trying to follow Aldous Huxley’s advice to “pay attention to attention.”
Attention is a lens through which you can look at any situation, from the batting back of daily distractions, to love, to politics, to catastrophe. I should know: I’ve been researching and writing about attention for the last three years, its incredible power to shape our days and give meaning—or not—to our lives.
“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James wrote in the last decade of the 19th century. Now James’s pronouncement is getting its ultimate trial. How can we steer our minds to save them amid a global pandemic? When we can’t help but ask ourselves: Have end times, long predicted, finally arrived?
In these first weeks of acute shock and panic, we probably can’t expect much of ourselves, other than to remain riveted to our newsfeeds. Sherry Turkle, who has studied our relationship to technology for decades, acknowledges that right now the attempt to reach a higher plane of focus is likely “aspirational.” That anxiety levels are too high to “walk towards solitude. Walk towards boredom.”
But what about in the weeks and months ahead, as we seem poised to settle into a new, more socially isolated normal?
In 2017, I arrived in Claremont, California, to meet the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow. He invoked the term “flow” to capture the special quality of attention that occurs when we lose ourselves completely in the task at hand, when we step outside of ourselves to become absorbed in something greater.
Right now, the attempt to reach a higher plane of focus is likely “aspirational.”
Csikszentmihalyi was in his 80s, but still teaching at the Quality of Life Research Department at Claremont Graduate University. I wanted to ask him where he had the epiphany that made his name. I was expecting him to say, “Meditating at Esalen,” or something equally redolent of the 1960s. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
He conceived of it, he told me, as a young boy in Budapest, learning to play chess with his uncle as the bombs of World War II exploded around them. “Looking out the window, you saw dead people in the street, and streetcars with pieces of a house sticking out of it, the beams spearing through the streetcar, and houses on fire,” he said. “When I started playing chess, your attention is so focused on the game, you forget that this is happening outside.”
As Csikszentmihalyi moved his knights and queens and bishops amid the falling bombs, another writer preoccupied with the power of attention was on a ship from New York to England, forsaking her safety to engage with the devastation of war. This was Simone Weil, aged 33, who all her life was driven to understand the suffering of others. Frail and sickly, she had done hard labor in French factories, she had joined the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, and now she was returning to war-torn Europe to do whatever she could for the war effort.
Weil wrote frequently about attention, but the single line that haunts me most in all her books is this: “What are you going through?” The very act of turning to another person in the spirit of that inquiry was an exalted one, she wrote. “Only one who is capable of attention can do this.”
These are the voices I have in my head, the voices urging me to reflect on attention, even—especially—in our current crisis. Years from now, when my son asks me what this period was like, I don’t want to tell him I spent his infancy unraveled by fear, staring at my phone. I want to tell him that he was my focus, that these irreplaceable weeks of his development were where I chose to put my gaze. I want to tell him that paying attention to him was, in fact, what got me through.
Casey Schwartz’s Attention, A Love Story is out now from Pantheon