Paying Attention

CATE O’BRIEN | OPINION COLUMNIST

I reflect on everything. I always have. On long family road trips, while my sisters goofed around with each other and played silly games, I would look out the window and zone out for a couple of hours, lost in my own thoughts. I’ve always liked this about myself. I like my own mind. It’s comfortable, it’s safe and it’s fascinating.

As I started getting older, though, this obsessive introspection actually started to hinder me. I remember being confused at my fifth grade teacher’s frustration when she saw my math workbook had become a place for short stories and tiny drawings. When friends tried to gossip with me, they found to their dismay that I didn’t know the names of classmates who had been in my grade for years. I would often find myself losing important things: my planner was always missing, I went through at least a couple of lunch boxes a year and I would leave my sweatshirt on whatever chair I was sitting on without fail. I just wasn’t aware of my surroundings. I was, to put it lightly, a complete airhead.

This wasn’t a huge problem in grade school. But as I got older, these tiny consequences began to hold more weight, and it began to be more and more important for me to start paying attention to things outside of my own head.

People told me to pay attention many times throughout the years, I just didn’t listen. Partially this was because it was hard; I wasn’t naturally good at it. But partially, I didn’t listen because I didn’t want to. The real world was boring. My world was much better. So what if I forgot a few things? I was happy in my own little paradise.

I only started seeing the value in attention during high school, in an art class of all places. My teacher told us that real, authentic art stemmed from what the artist paid attention to. To make truthful art, you had to realize what it was that you paid attention to. This was obviously somewhat concerning for me because, as I just explained, I didn’t pay attention to much at all.

But I wanted to make good art. And if the only way to do so was to get out of my own head, I would just have to do it. So I decided to wake up and look around. And when I did, I was surprised at what I learned. I learned to really listen to people when they talked. I learned how to accept that there were times when I was wrong, times when my own introspection was not enough to lead me to the truth. And I learned a lot about beauty.

Paying attention allowed me to see beauty in things I had never glanced at before: in the delicate branches of the trees, in a graffitied highway bridge, in the way that a street light daintily touches strands of grass at night. What’s more, paying attention allowed me to see the beauty in people who otherwise might have passed by unnoticed, or worse, been labeled as boring and uninteresting at first glance.

I still struggle sometimes to get out of my own mind and into the real world. It’s a continuous balance of recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the way that my mind works. But I think now, in the midst of the mid-semester babble, is a good time to remind myself and anyone happening to read this article to wake up and look around. You might be surprised at what you learn just by paying attention.

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