The ethics of paying attention: part 1

Consider this scene: As I settle in for dinner with my wife in the early evening, plates of steaming food sit on the table before us, and I inquire about her day. She begins to share her anecdotes from the day and as I listen, I bid my mind to consider each uttered word as it leaves her mouth and enters my ears. I care deeply about my wife and thus want be in a state of pristine listening. But, strangely, I struggle to achieve this. Even as I listen intently, my own thoughts carry on, in a kind of secret competition with my wife’s narration. I seem to be plotting a response, reflecting on my own day, or commenting on the relative tastiness of the brown rice and spiced chicken on my plate. The room itself contains no prominent distraction, it is quiet and the sunset casts a calm pink and orange light through the window. Everything is ideal for good conversation. And yet, at almost every moment that my wife speaks to me, I’m aware that my own internal voice talks too, like a child who can’t wait his turn.  

A well-trained mind, it seems to me, would be able to shine a perfect spotlight on my wife as she speaks. Then, after having fully absorbed what she had to say, and allowing a brief pause of silent communion, finally, intentionally, respond. Part of the lifelong project of mindfulness is to make peace with that voice in your head—your thoughts—and to let to the voices of others register fully in your brain before formulating a response. Needless to say, almost everyone is bad at this (including myself) and perfection is probably impossible. But consider it: when someone talks to you, aren’t you internally planning your response before the other person has finished? 

This all points toward a moral choice we’re faced with every time we converse with others: to half-listen, or to really listen. To pay attention, or not. Perhaps this seems like too prosaic an event to fall under the purview of morality. On the other hand, small things beget big things. And we all want to feel like others are really listening when we talk, don’t we? Just as white lies sow the seeds of distrust in our relationships, failing to pay attention causes unseen fractures. 

Failing to pay attention, it seems to me, is the royal road to chaos.