Selective Attention

Periodically, my wife will change things in our house while I’m at work. She rearrange pictures on a wall. She’ll hang some plants. She’ll get a new rug for the living room.

And, the running joke is that these changes go unnoticed by her adoring husband. I don’t notice when the pictures get rearranged. She has to kindly point out to me the plants, the rug, and ask what I think. Naturally, at that point, my opinion holds no weight.

The problem is that I see what I’m looking for. If I’m not looking for change, I don’t see it.

This, to varying degrees, is a well-documented phenomenon. When we’re looking for something, we see it. When we’re not looking for it, our brains are adept at weeding out the unnecessary information. Daniel Simons calls it selective attention. Auditorily, it’s called the cocktail party effect (and explains how you can pay attention to one conversation at your next party while the rest become background noise).

It’s documented that “lucky” or “unlucky” people aren’t innately that way–a large amount of the “luck” is simply expecting good fortune and seeing opportunities. And, maybe people are innately that way.

But beyond luck or rearranged photos, I’m interested in how this selective attention affects our presence–with each other, with the Divine.

We comes to conversations and time together with visions of what it should look like, expecting such moments to give us what we’re looking for. For example, my four year old daughter loves to play princesses. As a father, I specialize more in wrestling, chasing, and forming swords out of household objects. Princesses is not my strong point. So, I urge her to chase instead of sitting down to an imaginary tea.

I wonder how I have missed her presence because I see play differently than she does? I wonder how she has missed mine. And, I think of the times we have sat in the basement, my daughter breaking into song, myself sitting in front of a dusty plastic teacup filled with water, the light slant and bright–and I wonder why I bring my own agenda to play, to presence with another.

Isn’t that what selective attention is? It’s an emphasis on our agenda–sometimes for good reason (parties would be hell without it), but sometimes to our detriment.

And I think of how I can see moments where I’ve missed the Divine. This is what the gospel stories tell about the Pharisees–they we’re expecting and looking for a different sort of god, a god who fit their agenda. Instead, they met one who surprised and scared them, who threatened them. Rather than adjust their agenda, they dug in.

I do this.

My agenda with career or writing or free time continually gets interrupted. In fact, the one constant is that my best efforts are thwarted. Yet, instead of asking where the Divine is in this, I dig in. I insist where I’m looking, what I’m seeking after, is the right thing.

A year and a half ago, I was in the basement with our second daughter and our cat. I was trying to read. Our cat, however, had a different agenda. He kept crawling on my lap, distracting me. Finally, I put my book down. I let go of my agenda, of where I was looking.

And in the moments after, our daughter crawled over to me, stood up next to my knees, and then took a few tottering steps away before falling over.

Her first steps.

May we look, not for our own agendas, but for wherever the God is moving.


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