“Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

Susan Sontag

Attention. We give it and we receive it. If we think of the feeling of having someone look at you. Is it simply a nice feeling or is it a bit familiar in that it ‘feels like home’?

Attention is something we all crave in different forms. At times when we do not have enough, it seems to creep up on us that we need to be seen. Our need for attention goes beyond being seen. We want to be heard, felt and maybe even smelt. In some way or another, acknowledged. Attention is something that is not only joyful to receive but also to give. A loved one, a pet or close friend are all beings in our lives that we want to give our attention to and want to look at, listen to. Maybe sometimes our pet smells bad, our lover displeases us, a friend annoys us. But in that, we know they are there. They call for our attention.

Attention can be an acknowledgement of our existence. Beyond that, it goes into our personality and how we can receive the validation for our ideas, our values and our beliefs. But the need for attention can go quite wrong and can become excessive, like anything. With such a subtle, simple and fundamental thing like attention, how does that happen?

It started way back when…

When we are young, we are not aware of ourselves as the observing entity. Our developing awareness is an observer to the world around us. The boundaries between us and the world do not exist just yet and we feel fully absorbed in our experience. Life as a baby, can be likened to an everlasting flow state. Slowly, as we grow we begin to speak, walk and understand what is going on around us. Our parents, once the great gods that watch over us reveal themselves to us as people, possibly like ourselves.

They have lives and they disappear at times during the day and may come back stressed and tired. What happened in the meantime, we can only guess. We start to understand that there indeed are boundaries. I am me, and my parents are who they are. As much as I’d like to place my consciousness in their being and see what they do during the day, I am unable to. My consciousness is located in my being and that’s where it will be. It is from this standpoint that I may perceive and understand the world. This, first realization is something that we can all have different reactions to. Some may accept it, some may question it, some may reject it and some may try to find ways around it. But the fact remains that we find ourselves in our being and through the tools of our senses and other ways we connect and perceive the world around us.

The awareness we have of ourselves starts to grow. We start to understand what we are and crucially, what we are not. Understanding this can come as a mild form of loss. That eternal flow state where we had no care, where our needs were tended to and everyone looked at us as if we were gods – is no more. Our experience has become something we perceive from the five walls of our senses and we find ourselves barricaded in our being. We long to return to that form of being.

It is a natural part of life to understand that one is an individual in the collective but it can seem like a fall from grace to realize one is solely this individual. Thoughts fill our minds and as our minds develop, we start thinking of the world around us in the form of ‘other’. We also start forming what is called, an ego – which can be likened to but the blue dot on Google maps telling us you are here. Our egos become places where we locate the convergence of our senses, we start associating it with our names. Then we build stories around it. I am a person who likes this, I am someone who does this, I am someone who doesn’t like this. The list goes on but the fundamental framework of this affirmation becomes – I am someone.

The more affirmation we need in order to feel like we are someone, the higher our need for attention becomes. If I want to be a football player, a painter, a magician, an athlete and so on, I need the validation for all those activities. “Look mom, I’m playing football” Or “look mom, I’m at artist!” A positive response to this will validate us for a while. But eventually, life does make us understand the reality of ‘ambition ahead of ability’ and no amount of positive attention will guide us to greatness. So then, attention becomes our source of validation and it seeks to tell us what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. If we do a certain act and we get strange looks, or people around us make strange sounds we have not heard before, we start to get suspicious. If it doesn’t feel like a positive response, so it must be negative one?

We start to back off and we see that the attention we were getting has now been taken away. It must have been caused by something we did. ‘I must never do it again’ we tell ourselves. The removal of attention can be a powerful thing. What if we didn’t do anything wrong? What if we didn’t do anything at all and yet, the attention was taken away? Then, life takes a turn where we feel we need to actively seek attention or it will be taken away from us. We start to assume – If I do nothing, I will be ignored.

“But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes. The heart of a hurt child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach. Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things.”

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories

A feeling of belonging

As we progress in life, we see this assumption becoming stronger. As innocent children who take inspiration about the world from the little world around us, we know no better. At that stage, it is not in our capacity to understand that people do not take attention away from us, they put it into something else. It might not naturally occur to us that our parents, caregivers or the people close to us have a low capacity for attention or that their work or some part of their life is their primary focus. What has happened with us has happened with others too and even our caregivers are products of their own childhood experience which undoubtedly had similar roots. When attention is taken away from us, we start to feel separate. The joy of being the center of attention was not merely the satisfaction of being looked at, it was more than that. Or rather, it was simpler than that. As babies we do not have this desire to be the center, but we naturally are. In that attention, we get the greatest affirmation we need in our lives – we belong. Acceptance into a community of human beings is an integral part of feeling like one has arrived and is welcomed into humanity. The pain of separation through the withholding of attention, negates that primal feeling and starts us on a neurotic path of regaining that paradise lost.

However, we must give ourselves understanding and forgiveness so that we can start to release this ‘pain of separation’.

How much attention is enough attention? If the desire for attention comes from this pain of separation then we wish to someday have that kind of attention that will dissolve this pain. But it is the pain we carry with us and the balm of some quick and easy attention only gives temporary respite. It becomes painful and difficult to be alone. The deeper the hurt and separation, the stronger the need for attention. Undoubtedly, the need for attention arises on a spectrum. There are people who are reticent, hermits or just like to be by themselves. They can be placed on the lower end of that spectrum. Then there are people who thrive in the limelight and will do a lot to keep themselves there. They could be placed on the higher end of the spectrum. The important thing to remember is that it is natural for us all to desire some form of attention or another. The question we are exploring here is – where does attention go from abundance to excess?

Read Part 2 here

“The hunger for attention is an enemy of self-love.”

Edmond Mbiaka

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