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September 19th, 2019
Attending the party means you’re actually there. It comes from the same root where we get the word attention.
The root is two parts. The first, the old prefix was once spelled with a ‘d’ instead of a ‘t’, and ‘ad-’ communicates something like ‘towards, or simply to’, the preposition, not the adverb or the number.
The other half the of the word, ‘tend’, has a root in proto-indo European meaning ‘stretch’. It’s easy to evoke this root meaning when we use the word tend by itself in a sentence, as in:
Things tend to get a little heated every time someone disagrees with Hitchens.
The word ‘tend’ in that sentence speaks of a process of increasing degree. The situation is stretching towards a full on example of something that is ‘heated’.
With a quick and rudimentary understanding of the historical guts of this word ‘attention’ we can ask whether it makes sense in a modern context.
When you pay attention to a child deviously tinkering with something in the corner of the room, does the etymology of the word attention make any sense?
We can substitute the etymology in the sentence in order to see.
Our focus stretches across the room towards the child. So it makes sense, but only with the addition of the word ‘focus’.
Let’s examine another use case. Say we flip to a news station and the anchor says: The nation’s capital became a source of attention when protestors lit the nation’s flag on fire.
This concept of a source suddenly calls into question the direction of attention.
Where exactly is the source of our attention? In the case of the news anchor, the source is in the nation’s capital, but if we are suddenly paying attention to events in the capital, does not our focus stretch towards the capital?
Is it the other way around? Is our focus captured by sources of attention that stretch out towards us?
It’s further interesting to think about the times when we are so engrossed in some activity or work that we lose track of time and all other thoughts that we might have fall silent. Think of a great movie, or a great book, or tinkering with some project. When these instances end, we often feel as though we are waking up and return to ourselves. The experience is encapsulated by the phrase: to lose yourself in what you are doing.
When our attention is so fully directed, where exactly do we go when we have lost ourselves? That self that seems to return when the credits begin to roll or the book ends or we finally have to put down the project to answer a phone call.
Perhaps it’s not that we lose ourselves but rather that we become the object of our attention. That pesky determiner ‘our’ creates the assumption that attention is something we somehow posses, but what if it’s the other way around, what if it’s attention that posses us? Strangely enough, we use possessive determiners in exactly the same way in other circumstances. For example, with work we say my boss, when really the vector of power is in the opposite direction. The boss commands a degree of power over the employee. Even more visceral is the way we talk about illness, we say: I have a cold, when really, it’s a virus that has taken up residence in our body. Or with addiction, people say… my addiction. In all of these cases it would be more accurate to state things the other way around. This addiction that has a grip on me, this virus that has infected me, this boss who is directing me to do things. Through this lens the usage of possessive determiners like ‘our’ seems a bit strange and in some sense inaccurate.
Suddenly the news anchor who is talking about the source of attention being located at the capital seems to make more sense. There is an event that is stretching out towards everyone and capturing our focus. The source of attention is not in the person who focuses on a subject, but the source actually is the subject upon which we focus.
It’s a bit like that infamous quote from Fight Club: the things you own end up owning you. This sentiment has been reiterated since the times of Seneca and even the Buddha, but the sentiment is perhaps even more pervasive.
The things you pay attention to are really capturing you through your focus.
And by this mechanism we are either robbed of our precious resource of time,
we happen to be lucky enough to be captured by the things we love.