Once upon a time, I got stuck waiting to turn left against traffic on a notoriously congested cut-through street during morning rush-hour. When I finally had an opening, I noticed a school bus, full of expectant children, waiting turn in the opposite direction. Being the minivan-driving, suburban mom that I am, I invited the driver to turn ahead of me with a wave of my hand, only I forgot to tell my foot, which gunned the engine.
That’s right, people, I cut off a school bus.
But it’s okay, because afterward I had an epiphany.
First, I berated myself for being a schmuck and not paying closer attention. Then I wondered why the heck we call it “paying” attention in the first place. Then I snorted because the English language is so funny. But then, it came to me. The epiphany, that is.
Paying attention, as in to pay for, as in an asset against which we make payments.
What a great idea! Because, really, besides time itself, what is more valuable than attention?
It’s important for me to share here that attention is a big theme in my life. Several of my family members struggle with attentional issues, which, come to think of it, is probably why we don’t use the phrase “paying attention” in the first place. It’d kind of be like telling a blind person to “see” the big picture. Which is why when I heard the phrase in my inner dialogue that morning, I heard it as though for the first time. And once I heard it, I couldn’t unhear it.
Attention is entirely subjective, like pain, exhaustion, even color. It’s tough to measure on a relative scale. Do you have enough attention? More or less than the average person? In truth, few of us (read: anyone without a clinical attentional disorder) spend much time thinking about attention, much less try to actively moderate, regulate, or improve upon it. Yet attention has far-reaching affects on relationships we keep with ourselves and others. For instance, what things do you pay attention to? Positive thoughts or negative thoughts? The people in the room with you or the people who might be saying something really funny if only you could check your phone?
The thing we seem to take for granted as a result is that there is a cost associated with what and how well we pay attention.
So call me the Suze Orman of attention, because from now on, when I find myself fading, losing patience, or focusing on the wrong thing, I’m going to ask myself: Can I afford it? Can I afford to spend my attention that way? In the same way that I plan for my financial future, I’m going to start planning for my emotional future. I’m going to make investments now, in healthy relationships, fond memories, and a sense of self so I’ll have enough of all three to dip into when the time comes.
It’s like my grumpy, old-world Sicilian grandfather used to say: “You pay, or you pay.”