Is any part of life excluded, on which attention has no bearing, any that you will make worse by attention, and better by inattention? Nay, is there anything in life generally which is done better by those who do not attend? Does the carpenter by inattention do his work better? Does the helmsman by inattention steer more safely?
~from Discourses by Epictetus
I struggled to concentrate in 2016. Looking back over the year, the thing that stands out most is how difficult it was to pay attention. Maybe I’ve always been this scattered but I don’t think so. There was a time when I could sit down and finish a task. These days, the mere thought of a project sends me into nervous fits. Doing one thing seems neglecting something else and the swirl of thoughts, ideas and emotions makes it difficult to focus. Everything is out-sized these days: hopes, anxieties, plans, fears.
Partly this is a function of politics and society. Twenty-sixteen was a year of blood and thunder. Britain is Brexiting because half the population couldn’t pay attention to reality long enough to see past the Leavers lies. America elected as president man whose communication habits put a Ritalin’d up teenager to shame. Shouting was the most highly rewarded mode of public discourse. Good people died in droves. Many whose names we’ll never know sank beneath the waves while fleeing hell at home, or were blown apart by partisans of one sort or another. Others, whose names are carved on our memories, died in their homes, leaving us to mourn their legacies as best we can—by listening to their music and cherishing their spirit (RIP Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, and so many more).
It was a hard to be attentive with so much clamour, sorrow, tumult, and emotion.
My personal attention deficit was aggravated by my boyfriend’s globe-trotting work schedule. When we were apart I was always half in his time-zone: setting my alarm to wake up so I could say goodnight, or waking at 3AM to catch him before he went to work. Our time together was a perpetual ticking clock. We drove ourselves to sleep deprivation because we couldn’t bear to waste the hours sleeping.
As the relationship reshaped my life it got increasingly difficult to be present. The last few months in Ibiza were spent wanting to be somewhere else, and planning my departure. This literally gave me headaches. Walking through sun-dappled pine woods, or sitting on the beach staring at the perfect turquoise sea, I’d chide myself for not paying more attention. I wanted to absorb it all, to appreciate it as it deserved to be appreciated, but my heart was elsewhere and my mind was spinning like wheels in sand.
This year is my first real experience of not being able to pay attention and it’s scary. Inattention triggers a cycle of un-productiveness, anxiety and insecurity. I write badly; ideas dry up; I wonder what the fuck I’m doing with my life; everything I haven’t done looms huge in my mind; I feel like a failure; I don’t know what to do next. I literally can’t remember what day it is or where I’m supposed to be. My confidence evaporates. Some days, I’m barely capable of getting myself out of bed and into clothes. It astonishes me I’ve managed to survive this long.
The world is huge and, if we choose to believe the news, on the verge of collapse. Twitter, Facebook, Feedspot, The New York Times, The National Enquirer—anywhere I look, it’s a jerky, attention-fucking montage of violence, celebrity meltdowns, funny animal videos, and advertisements. Everything is for sale. Nothing matters. We’re all going to die. Did you hear the latest about Kim and Kanye?
I need a better filter.
My best memories of 2016 are the times I was paying attention. A fine afternoon on Cala St Vicente drinking red wine and lemonade with my nephew Luis. Hiking with my dear friend Sarah on a sunny afternoon in France. Walking through the plaza of St Peter’s in Rome at twilight with Chris. Many other clear, bright moments with people I love. Tonight promises to be another: New Year’s Eve with my family, friends and partner.
Moving forward, my intention for 2017 is to attention. It’s the only way to stay grounded in a world that’s spinning too fast.
Share your new year’s intention in the comments or tweet @CilaWarncke