Let's start with a quick inventory: Can you remember the last time you looked into the eyes of a stranger? Not for romantic reasons but just to make a human connection, however momentary. Think elevators. Think long lines of women waiting to use the restroom at a concert.
Okay, what about friends and family? Do you hold anyone's gaze beyond the point of discomfort? Do you ever feel like you're "hearing without listening," or wonder if there's anyone truly listening to you?
There's no scoring for this quiz. I'm just curious.
A close girlfriend of mine has been nicknamed "Queen," thanks in part to her regal sense of entitlement for gifts and favors. It may be a mixed term of endearment, but what I think she really deserves a crown for is the full and undivided attention she gives to everyone in her presence. Asking questions with sincere interest in the response, she unfailingly remembers details from previous encounters, right down to minor features of my life that I might think are important only to me.
In other words, she gives good attention.
Over the years of our friendship, I've come to value this quality more and more, especially since I'm increasingly aware of how rare it is. Mostly I find myself surrounded by people who are quite happy to wax eloquent about their own lives---mundane events, accomplishments of no particular originality, self-satisfying insights, dietary revelations, even bodily functions. But when it comes to listening, these same people have zero tolerance for any input from their "audience." They're perfectly content to regale me with endless monologues, never noticing that all I've done is nod or say "mhmhm" throughout the entire encounter. "It's been so great to see you!" they'll say on the way out the door, casually oblivious to the one-sidedness of the meeting, or simply relieved not to have to pretend to care.
What has happened to the lost art of paying attention?
How is my friend Queen so skillfully able to inquire, to engage, to remember?
Wouldn't we all be better off---more informed, more connected, even more compassionate, if we practiced genuine give and take in our daily interactions?
I'm not just talking about the first-time collision of a blind date, that crucial period of evaluating a possible mate; nor am I referring to catching up with a long-lost acquaintance or reuniting with a relative at holidays. I'm talking about our everyday exchanges with others: standing in line at the grocery store; checking in for a doctor's appointment; asking a child about his or her day at school.
When we are only half-there, when we are merely going through the motions of dialogue, we miss out on so much. We miss the gleam in a 7 year old's eye when she describes learning the names of the planets in our solar system; we fail to notice that the cashier is in the midst of a heartbreaking divorce. We may even lose the opportunity to recognize a familiar face in a crowd, as long as we're convinced everyone is a closed door, a blank screen unworthy of our curiosity.
Sometimes I actually have to remind myself that, just like me, everyone longs to be seen. Each of us yearns to be found compelling and worth listening to; we are waiting for someone (anyone!) to appreciate our complex sense of humor, our infectious laugh, our warm handshake. Sometimes even within our own families, we wonder if we're invisible, too large to be accommodated, too small to be taken in.
When I was a child, my parents seemed to take turns either criticizing me (my father) or effusively praising me (my mother). I understand now that they were offering me guidance and support in the ways they trusted would help me grow. They wanted to help me become self-assured enough and self-conscious enough to keep trying harder while reaching higher. But their strategies also created plenty of confusion and doubt. Could I be seen without being found lacking? Could I be valued without feeling inflated?
A while ago I spent a week with my younger brother, watching him and his wife with their three young daughters. Each child is uniquely beautiful, talented---in short, they are all extraordinary. The 9 year old is already a remarkable artist. The 6 year old has an astonishingly quick mind. The two year old reminds me of the Dalai Lama. (I'm serious. And, okay, I'm biased. But still.)
Although I've heard rumors that my brother has inherited a version of my father's tendencies toward distractibility and multi-tasking, what I witnessed was attention being paid, generously and purposefully. My brother tracks his daughters' moods and discoveries; he honors their insights and perplexities. And with equal devotion of her own, their mother specifically embraces their disappointments as well as their achievements.
I want to keep cheering them on. To encourage them to stay unlimited in their appreciation. To help make sure they aren't afraid the girls will grow up too confident or too proud. As an Aunt, I get to be the extra voice on the sidelines, another keen admirer and observer and confidante. But more than that, I get to feel healed by the image of a new generation of daughters learning to feel worthy of abundant, generous attention.
I believe that this kind of art can be learned, and that it's never too late to get better at it, even if we didn't get nearly enough of it ourselves as children. Practicing on my inner circle first, I also get to see what happens when that generous net of attentiveness spreads wider. Maybe I can't swear by this, but I'm willing to bet that my blood pressure is dropping, and my sense of open-heartedness is rising. I'm even discovering that the world isn't nearly as full of strangers as I used to think.
Can I promise it will be worth the extra effort? When we actually practice giving good attention---does the royal treatment get repaid? Not always.
There are still going to be people considering it their due to be interviewed and encouraged, those who feel it's only appropriate that an entire hour (or month or lifetime) be spent exclusively in service to their stories and opinions. Plenty of unenlightened Kings and Queens sitting comfortably on their thrones will remain locked in self-absorption, afloat on pillows of their own self-regard.
But I'm convinced that we do have a choice. We can hold eye contact a millisecond longer, ask one more question and wait with patient interest for the answer. We can expand our awareness to include the possibility that everyone is at least as richly fascinating as we think ourselves to be. Those who don't? That's easy. They turn out to be the royal losers.