Our Attention

The other day, I went to the gym. I was motivated to go do something other than yoga by my doctor’s voice ringing in my head, “You need to build more protective muscle. Your bones are your bones for life.” I grabbed my headphones, my sneakers, a sweater, and I was on my way.

I found a free treadmill, and began “warming up,” as athletic people say, listening to “The Garden” by Will Cookson, an English alt-folk singer, whose songs remind me of the beginning of my relationship with Jack and soften my perspective on things.

As I started to run my first interval, I looked up, and to my shock and horror, Fox News was on the monitor above me. There was a sea of TVs in front of me, in fact, with waves of angry white men’s faces making subjective claims. In my liberal New York bubble, I thought one could go to the gym in peace, to contemplate spiritual and physical strength. How wrong I was. I tried pressing all the buttons on what looked like a remote attached to the treadmill to change the channel to no avail.

I kept running, attempting to avert my eyes from the monitors, to just focus on my breathing and nostalgic music. This proved nearly impossible, and I caught a clip of something I had already read about, “They want to destroy people. These are evil people.” Seeing the image of this man, so stuffed with power, be cheered on for taunting a woman who was sexually assaulted and demeaning those who believe her, making outlandish and blatantly false claims, was far more upsetting than reading about it in the New York Times in static black ink.

I felt dizzy seeing the layers of moving screens as the belt of the treadmill kept wizzing beneath my feet. I was suddenly struck by the dissonance of it all. I could see a man yelling dehumanizing things about people like me, while listening to another man sing gently about lying in a garden.

“And a sliver of the moon lies sleeping on the dew
As winter waits for the summer nights to darken
And the ancient fountain fills from silver-threaded rills
As the owl cries echo in the garden.”

This world confounds the scientist, the artist, the poet, and the theologian because it is a world of simultaneous extremes. Scholars study chemical reactions or rock formations or ethics or human geography or metaphor to refine knowledge of the world and human experience. They pay attention to one aspect of this vast, incomprehensible world to find the edges of the life in front of them. What we give our attention to shapes who we become and what we believe is true about our own existence and how to live well here.

If we give our attention to shallow political punditry that only serves to demean vulnerable people, reduce complexity, undermine the truth, and embolden hate, we will contract and become narrow people who live in fear and dehumanize otherness. If we give our attention to the natural world, to another human being, to the collective good, we expand to become compassionate people. We become more capable of treating lines of difference graciously, and we enter the struggle of oneness together.

The demands of modern life are taxing on the human mind. We know that good and horrific things can happen at the very same moment of any given day. A scholar can repair something, learn something, write something profound, while a misguided leader tears a new yet anachronistic, self-serving hole in our social fabric. The simple fact of the simultaneity of creation and destruction, reparation and division, is enough to make an individual, as my British husband would say, “go mad.” Cynicism and resignation, however, do not serve the betterment of anything. Hope, tempered by the knowledge of our smallness, is an act of faith.

We all have the choice of where to place our attention. Attention, given with a clean heart, prepares the way for both wonder and empathy. Of course, I am not arguing we bury our heads in the sand and ignore injustice or dehumanization of any kind. I am asking that we look at the work to be done through the lens of hope. There is plenty of evidence that shows our earth and culture are in peril, and there is data that indicates resilient possibilities for new life, for the land, the terrain of the soul, and the populace.

With this insight, my trip to the gym took on new meaning. I will continue to run to grow stronger because people who live with clear sight, who want to care for others, who want to spend their compassion reserves in service, who want to pray or meditate, who want to study, who want to love other human beings, need energy. The protective bone muscle will just be a bonus.