Flies, Morality and Attention

Last week I posted some thoughts that drew a lot of attention. In that post I ranted about how many Christians tend to use "religion" as a substitute for kindness, patience and decency. It was a critical post, so in this post I want to offer something more positive.

Despite what I said in previous post, I don't think most Christians are jerks. Rather, I think Christians tend to behave like jerks due to failures of attention. I just don't think Christians are mindful enough.

Here's a great illustration and metaphor for what I'm talking about. If you've ever been in a men's restroom you know that men tend to be pretty careless when it comes to aiming properly at a urinal or toilet. This lack of care and attention is exacerbated in public toilets where you don't have to clean up your own mess. Consequently, many public bathrooms are filthy.

Well, a few years back the authorities at the Amsterdam airport had a wonderful idea for this problem. They etched a small fly in each urinal. You can see this if you click and expand on the picture above. The presence of this fly focuses the attention and men just naturally aim at it. In studies done by the airport the fly urinal reduced spillage by 80%.

Now, I don't want to push this metaphor too far (i.e., we need flies in our moral world so we don't, well, pee all over the place, morally speaking), but it does nicely illustrate the point I want to make. Our behavior is a product of our attention. (And before dismissing the urinal example too quickly I'd like to note that using a public urinal is a moral act. Your actions affect those sharing the space and those who have to clean up your waste. The Golden Rule should be operative. Again, building off of my last post, few Christians think going to the loo is a spiritual act, but it is.)

In short, many of the moral failures I was writing about in my earlier post are often failures of attention. Without little flies sprinkled around the world we just don't pay attention to what we are doing. People don't have sticky notes stuck to their heads declaring their stress, fear, depression, need or woundedness. So we fail to pay attention. Fail to slow down and look. There is a vast universe behind the eyes of the checkout person at WalMart. And we often fail to pause and glimpse into the storms reflected in those windows. It's all a matter of attention.

One of the best meditations I've read about attention and the amount of effort and intentionality it requires is from David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College (an adaptation of the speech can be found here from the WSJ and there is a book of Foster's address called This is Water). Foster focuses on the fight against out "default setting" which is selfish self-absorption. This is the mechanism that makes us jerks, situationally speaking. To fight against this self-absorption Foster focuses upon our attention. Here is Foster meditating on how this applies to a slice of modern life, the frustrations of food shopping in an crowded supermarket at the end of an exhausting day:
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people...

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do -- except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities...

But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things...

It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us...

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9 thoughts on “Flies, Morality and Attention”

  1. In the Navy we call it "attention to detail" and that is a great way to put our Christian witness. I need more attention to detail in my life so that I don't blow my witness before I start. Great post! And great reminder!

  2. My husband and I were talking earlier about the "jerk factor" among Christians. It seems to us that churches (or certain denominations) teach that "being a good Christian" entails persuading others to think exactly as they do, whether through pressure, dress, fear-factor politics and legislation, running agendas in relationships, or insulating one's children. Philip Gulley, in his Harmony series makes this point humorously and poignantly. That is, churches teach members they must play the role of another person's conscience for them in order to be a "true" Christian, instead of teaching that being a Christian means living as an exemplary neighbor/friend/restaurant patron/etc. and letting God do the inside job of convincing a conscience. But you're exactly right that religious minds seldom consider housekeeping details. And I routinely trash the Liberty Baptist tracts left in the Wal-Mart ladies' restroom.

  3. Hmm...a lot to think about in that lecture! I think Wallace was bang on, and I thought it was interesting that he ended up committing suicide. Do you think that what he says in this address had anything to do with it? Is it possible that some people might not escape their "default settings" no matter how much they want to?

  4. Rachel,
    I think a lot about Foster's death in light of his speech. My take is that you can feel his effort in his words. The sheer struggle for perspective and attention really comes through. And I think it is that struggle that makes his speech so real, raw, personal, immediate and powerful. Only someone fighting for sanity day in and day out could have written that speech.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. I think we live in a limited space where all action causes a reaction regardless of consciousness or ignorance. It's time we stop pissing all over the place with the excuse that "this world isn't our home" and start loving our neighbors with sacred transparency. We will never be able to live completely responsible but we will be able to live honestly.

  6. And Gladwell gives the example of the "good samaritans" on their way to give a speech. If they thought they were late, they wouldn't stop to help the poor guy (accomplice) along the way. I wonder if that is perhaps one of the functions of the holy spirit in Christians' lives...to graciously ring those "bells" (whether small rings or blaring alarms) to help us get out of the default setting and pay attention.

  7. I like this--mindfulness, "attention," is something I've been working on myself.

    It's also worth noting that taking care of our baseline needs helps us to be more able to pay attention to others. When I eat small meals at regular times, I'm much more able to be free with my attention to others because my blood sugar stays stable. Etc, etc. It's not all about forcing ourselves to change our mindsets; it's also about adjusting to our limits to help our minds reach the point where they can begin to change. :)

    Thanks for the awesome post!

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