Attention Must Be Paid, Part 2
So this coincidence occurred. The very same day I was reading about attention, rereading what Sharon Begley says about attention in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, I also happened to be preparing to teach Death of a Salesman to my seniors. I looked for an excerpt online and downloaded it so we could read it as a preview to reading the entire play. The excerpt is a brief 4 pages. In it I was surprised to come across this, a speech by Willy Loman’s wife, Linda:
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.
Here then is the same line Sharon Begley uses as a heading to introduce the notion of attention in her book: attention must be paid. You may already be quite familiar with the play. In it Willy Loman, played by Dustin Hoffman in one of the film versions, is a salesman who has tried to live his version of the American Dream—be well liked, become successful through being well-liked, do whatever it takes to become well liked, and, perhaps most important of all, have well-liked and successful sons. It isn’t working out so well for him. He’s past mid-life and things are falling apart. He’s getting increasingly confused. He’s living in the past, talking to ghosts. In this context, the lines his wife says are so powerful: He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.
What struck me in particular about this is the way it got me thinking of what it is we direct our attention to. We’re awash in sensory stimuli—billions of neurons potentially firing—and amidst this sea we’re always choosing where to direct our attention. I’d been thinking of attention as important in directing us toward what’s valuable in our environment—the jewels among the debris—what we want to hang on to and remember and learn. What I’d missed—and what this excerpt reminded me to consider—is the way we also have to direct our attention toward what is painful—toward those who are suffering—and toward those who perhaps have something to teach us in their suffering. The closer I look at Arthur Miller’s play the more I see it as brilliant. Willy Loman was trying to live by a myth he believed in—and the myth is failing him. He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.
Another thing I did with my seniors before starting the play was to ask, Should literature be studied in high school? Why or why not? Out of twelve or so small groups that gave mini-presentations, eleven were in favor of it. (The twelfth group wanted to deal more with song lyrics and films, which could be, depending on your definition, a kind of literature.) A thread running through nearly all of their presentations was the way that reading has the potential to expand us—not just knowledge and vocabulary, which many of them did mention, but also to expand our understanding of and empathy for people who might be very different from us—or who might be living in very different situations.
There’s something there I think—this connection between attention and understanding and empathy. It’s one of the things reading can do. And writing too—the way we can begin to connect to and inhabit other lives.
Photo above is from Wikipedia