Paying Attention

In Life Is Short, Rants and Sermons, The Life Creative by David36 Comments

Every day we draw upon limited resources for the things we want in life. We choose what we spend our time on, what we spend our money on, and what we will pay attention to. All three of these give us either greater freedom or impose stricter limits on our lives. What we spend frivolously now we will not have to spend on wiser things, life-giving things, and – for most of us – these three resources are not limitless.

As a culture we do not spend wisely. We spend wildly, I suppose wanting to feel unhindered by the very real limits of our resources, unaware that we’re spending ourselves further and further from the freedom we most long for. Nothing has made me more aware of this than watching 5000 people on Facebook. Spending money on things they do not need, time on things they don’t want, and their emotional and creative energies on things they aren’t aware they’ve chosen. And still the resounding echo I hear is: I want more.

No. We want better. But we get them confused. We want better photographs, so we buy better cameras. We want more interesting lives so we buy more interesting things. We want to feel significant so we weigh in on significant issues before we listen. We Instagram the best of ourselves in hopes that it is so, and if we can’t convince ourselves, we might at least convince others. We spend more time on Facebook and various social media, as though our days are without end. And then to our surprise our day does end. As does the week, the month, and my-god-where-did-the-time-go? Our best work remains undone. The legacy of our time not much more than a few social media impressions and half-assed and half-hearted creative efforts made in the margins of our lives.

You’ve heard sermons about time and money from me before. This is about attention. We are not hardwired to absorb everything we expose ourselves to. Like time and money, there is only so much attention we can pay before we’re empty. Much as we’d like to believe our brains have an infinite capacity, that our souls can absorb it all, they can not. We barely have the capacity to love and serve our friends and family with the depth they deserve and to act locally on things that matter to us, let alone to absorb the endless stream of news on terror and Trump, and the darkness that seems to ever wait outside our doors.

Art has long been a way of keeping that darkness at bay. A response to the fears. Whatever the medium, on some level, the artist sits at the workbench, the canvas, the darkroom, making candles against the gloom. When art becomes the first victim of those fears, we have lost. Fear is an auto-immune disease, attacking our very defences, the only cure for which is love and hope expressed.

But you need a certain amount of bandwidth for that. You need something left in your storehouse of attention. You need some measure of hope left un-exhausted, something that’s yet untouched by the cynicism and the hate and the downward-spiral of us-vs-them, the language of which fills our eyes and ears from every direction.

It might be time to turn it off. Time to shut out the news channels with their varied agendas. They aren’t showing us anything new. They aren’t giving us hope. They aren’t changing our minds. But they’re sucking us dry. On any given day we can consume (does it some days feel more like being consumed?) or we can create. We can grow more fearful of the darkness or we can resolutely make our candles, an act of hope and creativity that illuminates not only our way but the path of others. I don’t think we can do both with the resources we have.

Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn writes in a song called Lovers In a Dangerous Time, “you’ve got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” Here are the first few lines of that song, which read just as well as a poem:

Don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
We never get to stop and open our eyes
One minute you’re waiting for the sky to fall
The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all
Lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This fragrant skin, this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste
Lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

About the title of this song, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Cockburn once commented, “aren’t we all and isn’t it always?” Time to open our eyes a little wider to the beauty of it all, to find the wonder, to be open to the thrust of grace (my God, I love that line). If the artists don’t do it, who will?

Read Cath(art)ic, the follow-up to this article.

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  1. David,
    I just started following you and your writing and photography go straight to my heart. Like a soothing balm and respite from the chaos, I drink it up.

  2. Pingback: Echoes, Reflections and Speaking Into the Void « M&M's Musings

  3. …We barely have the capacity to love and serve our friends and family with the depth they deserve and to act locally on things that matter to us, let alone to absorb the endless stream of news on terror and Trump…. !

  4. Dear David,

    Pure evil is the suffication of our willingness to reach out with depth , kindness and perception. It is a cloud of blurred, fused anger; it is details that mean nothing and words that pound the spirit to dust in a seamless spiral of lies. All that is left is compliance, cynicism and distrust in the silence. Out of the swirling chaos comes the bronzed ego, churlish and full of self, promising salvation but delivering destruction without regret.

    Art stands fully between the would-be dictator and his even-smooth darkness cold in the palace of his mind, stands fully for the vibrant energy of life and fully against the empiness of mean solutions and edicts. Art defines the good that demands to be and pulls away the stealth trappings of the demagogue, the hate monger and the ‘strong man’ whose only plane of vision is to extinguish those who dared to question, dared to rose up.

    Today we stand naked and trembling at the fulcrum point of a wide, limitless darkness creeping forward along the edge lines of civilization. I tell you, David and all of you who love the image and love the art of the image; all those who believe in the eloquence and grace of seeing on your own terms, take up the the lamp of beauty and the lance of truth and fight boldly for civilization, compassion, all that we as artists cherish. Use your talent to defend the soul of humanity!!

    Very truly, Steven Peery – fine art photographer / painter in New Haven, Ct.

  5. Interesting article !
    I think we often stick to consuming, because it is easier, less frustrating.
    And it is less satisfying … .
    To be creative you have to confront you with yourself.
    Your fears, imperfections, possibly slow steps forward, discovering new and unknown territory, … .
    You need to keep faith in your path. …

  6. I did read through the entire article but was a little concerned that you lumped Trump in with terror but no mention of Clinton. Seems a little one sided to me sorta like what I see the media doing. I do agree with others that you made some good points but that one statement sets me back a little. As a former media photographer (worked for a small weekly for a decade as one of my final careers), I often was at odds with most of the other staff because of differing views. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no love for Trump any more than I do for Clinton as I see them both as the worse possible candidates for President. So I am searching through 3rd party candidates for an option. At my age, I can’t just vote for what I think is the “lesser of two evils”. And this is just my opinion. It is your blog and you have the option to say what you will. I do enjoy most of your writings so I guess I will just stick to the ones that are not on a subject that gets a little agitated. Sorry for the rant. You can delete this post if you wish. It won’t bother me as I got something off my chest.

    1. Author

      What can I say? I’m a one-sided guy. No need to apologize for the rant. I’m sorry you got agitated. Truth is, Richard, I’m not a journalist, and I’m not an American. I see more about Trump on FB, and have more concerns about him. And the words Trump and Terror have a nice consonance about them. I wasn’t actually saying anything about Trump, or about Clinton by not mentioning her. If you read it again you’ll see what I was talking about is ” the endless stream of news” about these things. And yes, there is much more in the news, but here – where I live – we don’t hear as much about Clinton. Sure, it might be unfair, and it might be media bias. This article is about our inability to absorb it all. Not about the media practices of a country in which I do not live, but about the human capacity to deal with the negativity, the stress, the floodwaters of information.

  7. David
    There is great wisdom in this. Thank you.

    How do I subscribe to your blog?

  8. It is not trivial to walk conscious in a mostly unconscious world. To be responsibly aware of forces and events without being taken into the drama by them, and at the same time, set worthwhile priorities realistically and stay focused on them.

    What a wonderful point in my day, David — to be reminded to keep my attention focused on what truly matters to me and to those who depend on me to do so.

    Namaste, my friend.

  9. Your piece resonates on so many levels, as do the comments here. I can very much relate to Ian’s spinning mental plates.

    Thank you. You seem to often know what so many of us are thinking and feeling, just at the right time.

  10. When I lived in NYC in 1998 I read “Eight Weeks to Optimum Health” by Dr. Andrew Weil. One of the chapters had to do with negative input as in TV, newspapers etc. I chose at that time to stop watching the news, stop reading newspapers (at least the negative stuff) and instead focus on positives and beauty. It really helped my stress levels. I continue this practice and while I am at times “out of it”, I am a healthier and happier person. Getting upset about things like Donald Trump, over whom I have no control, is pointless and only shortens my life. I’ve done the same with social media. I rarely use FB (I found it sucked up too much time) and only check Instagram a few times a week (mostly for the photos).

    I love your posts, your insights and sensitivities to what’s really important. Thank you for writing.

  11. The next time I think about putting off something fulfilling in favour of something time filling, I will remember your words. Thank you, David.

  12. David,

    Very interesting post. It speaks to the very nature of us as humans, I believe.

    One of challenges I have is that I’m intellectually restless. One of the gifts I have is that I’m intellectually restless. What has enabled me to excel professionally makes it challenging for me to find peace in other areas of my life. I love trying to understand how to make a museum quality scale model of one of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ships of the 1700’s (I’m half done and have been for 14 years) or how to restore an antique piece of machinery (have a 50 year old tractor in my garage that is slowly coming back to life) or trying to understand what drives rational people to perhaps irrational choices (politics among my many beloved debating grounds), etc. etc. Once I figured out how I can do something, I seem to lose more interest and off to the next curiosity. (modelling table saw for sale anyone!)

    I find that the older I get I’m either unable to keep up with the mental energy required to keep all these mental plates spinning on their respective sticks or the world is exposing more mental plates to spin. Either way I’m finding I need to increasingly make conscious choices of how many things I want to intellectually chase. Some are very rewarding (this blog) others are like eating a bag of cotton candy for dinner.

    Photography seems to be the only pastime that has lasted and only by more deliberately choosing what I chase and whom I associate with. I find that if I make wise choices and seek out wise people my nerves are calmed. I’m starting to simplify my life to pay attention to those pursuits that speak to more than just intellectual curiosity but to my whole being. Perhaps it’s an age thing where my energy levels just weren’t what they use to be or maybe it’s the famed wisdom that allegedly starts to dawn if you listen to that tiny whispering inner voice.

  13. Preach, man! We all need a bit more love and hope expressed these days. You’re the best David.

  14. Thanks, David. I can get through another day…and will not waste a breath today.

  15. Great post David. It’s unfortunate seeing people waste their days consumed by what the major media spews out, or complaining about things they aren’t happy with in their lives, and then not doing anything to make a change. I often wonder why a lot of people are drawn towards the negative almost instinctively? Imagine what things would be like if it were the other way around and people embraced only what added value and influenced growth in their lives. There is a whole other world out there waiting to be explored.

  16. This popped up in my feed this evening and did I never need to read it. Your words always seem to find their way to meet at exactly the right moment. Thanks again for another good reminder.

  17. Tears flowing down my face.

    In the chaos of life is the ever-present threat of ending. I’ve witnessed too much death in my short almost-45 years to allow myself the wasted breath called regret.

    For this, I make art. For this, I rise again. For this, I create memories. Because, one day our bodies will fail us and we won’t have the capacity to actually recall names and faces and things.

    But, we will have photographs. And, they will remind us of all of the stories and all of the light.


    Lost my nonno (Italian grandfather) yesterday at 90 years old. The first thing I reached for were photos of him. Because I needed to be reminded of that generous smile.

    1. Author

      I am so sorry for your loss, Zoe. Peace and courage, friend.

  18. You say it. You speak to my soul. I switched of the television long time ago. There is nothing new, inspirational or good. We can’t change the whole world and to live in fear of what we can’t change, is the wrong way. Life is short.

  19. I have LOVED this song for YEARs, but what a great context you have put it in David! Thanks so much 🙂

  20. Wonderful post, David.

    I’ve made some great real-world friendships which started online through social media, as I am sure you have – I guess the thing is to limit your indulgence – as with so many things in life.

    “You’ve got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.”. What a wonderful sentiment. I’m gonna find me some Bruce Cockburn on the (internet) radio tonight.

    1. Author

      I’d love to hear what you thought of Cockburn. I could make some recommendations 🙂

  21. You really are my biggest photography hero. And while I admire your work a great deal, it isn’t for that. There are lots of great photographers out there. It’s your vision. And your ability to communicate it without making me feel preached at.

    Thank you for both. I really appreciate it.

  22. Also see the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s “Time” from “Dark Side of the Moon”

    Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
    Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
    Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
    Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

    Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
    You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
    And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
    No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

    And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
    Racing around to come up behind you again
    The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
    Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

    Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
    Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
    Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
    The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

    Home, home again
    I like to be here when I can
    When I come home cold and tired
    It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire
    Far away, across the field
    The tolling of the iron bell
    Calls the faithful to their knees
    To hear the softly spoken magic spell

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