Don’t read this post: the high cost of paying attention

By Caitlin Kelly

High above Paris --- silence!
High above Paris — silence!

One of the tedious tasks of suburban living, where most of us drive everywhere, is the constant need to pump gas.


The television screens and their incessant chatter right above the gas pump that some stations now inflict on offer to customers.

I would actually pay more for quiet gas-pumps. I so crave silence and downtime, those daydreaming moments we all need to just mindlessly stare into space for a bit…

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I love teaching college; I teach two two-hour classes every Thursday.

But Friday? I’m wiped! Paying close attention to what I offer and everything my students say, however enjoyable, is also really tiring.

Paying attention takes energy!

The Grand Canyon -- whose profound silence makes your ears ring
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring; photo: Caitlin Kelly

Where, short of the Grand Canyon or some other pristine wilderness, can you now luxuriate in pure, unadulterated silence?

Where, short of hiding in your own bed under the covers, (without your phone!), can you sit still and just think?

A new book explores the issue; an excerpt in The New York Times:

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.

What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.

The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere.

In the summer of 2011, just before Jose and I got married, he took me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat.

My friends, knowing how chatty I am, figured that would be essentially impossible.

The first few days, (which I chronicled here at Broadside every day), were difficult.

No sound, just beauty
No sound, just beauty

But the greatest gift of the retreat was not having to pay attention.

We were told, all 75 of us from around the world assembled in an upstate New York monastery, that if someone looked at us, we did not have to look at them, smile at them or even acknowledge their presence at all.

We were not there for that.

It was the greatest freedom I’d ever felt.

As I wrote then:

I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me.

(How about you?)

Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.

A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.

To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.

By the end, we were deeply reluctant to return to the incessant noise and chatter of Western life. Jose and I went to a local restaurant, and sat at the bar…where we were bombarded visually and auditorily, by three huge television screens.

It was weird and disorienting and exhausting.

When did silence become such a terrifying concept?

Do you treasure silence and disconnection as much as I do?

41 thoughts on “Don’t read this post: the high cost of paying attention

  1. I have always needed a lot of “quiet time.” Sometimes, since the advent of cellphones and laptops the only place to get silence is when walking or running. I never use headphones. I can hear the birds and the wind or I can ignore them, but mostly I want to listen to my own thoughts for a while.

  2. I’m a bit of a sensory activist when it comes to televisions blaring everywhere. I turn them off in reception areas, I ask stores and restaurants to turn down music, televisions, etc. I pay more to shop in quieter places, get gas at pumps without televisions, watch shows without commercials etc. I’ve written letters to businesses letting them know that until they become more cognizant of customer needs for less flash and noise, I will not return.

    Most of it is pointless – just running at windmills, but the older I get, the less tolerance I have for this bullshit in public spaces that are not actual venues for music or a show. Fortunately, home is a true sanctuary and the reason I get up at 4am – for a few blessed hours of silence.

    1. Hey, so good to hear from you again! 🙂

      I admire your zeal. The worst is when I have gone to our local ER (de facto already scared and in pain) — and there are TVs blaring there. It’s as though we’re all giant babies and cannot possibly survive without our pacifiers. Like you, I find the noise very agitating and annoying.

      1. Well, I like to party, but only rarely. To me, a good Friday night is one not at a frat house (tried that, didn’t care for it), but with a good book or movie. I’m still on the fence about St. Patrick’s Day and if I’ll go crazy (though I have work in the morning, so that’ll be a factor).
        Anyway, I take pride in being unusual, so what you say is a compliment for me.

      2. Yeah, I’ve never been much for frats, though I know several people who are in one or another. All I’ve ever seen or heard about frats just doesn’t appeal to me. And after the SAE incident in Oklahoma, even more so.
        Well, we’ll see how I feel on Tuesday. It’ll be my first St. Paddy’s Day legally able to drink, so that might make me want to go out. Of course, with work the next day and not a lot of people around during spring break, I might not want to go out at all.
        Like I said, we’ll see.

  3. Thankyou you for this post Caitlin. it tells simply and in an effective way how precious silence is. I do agree and it’s years now that I miss that dimension in urban life. A long ago we had moments of silence when shops were closed on Sunday and it was a well accepted pause. today it would seem just odd.
    Thank you

      1. themodernidiot

        haha you crack me up. no way would I ever want you to be silent!

        however, if you’re down this way, I’ll find you a nice desert spot to align your chi. then we’ll find you a nice dessert spot to align your cheesecake 🙂

        in the meantime, may your condo windows be double insulated.

  4. I, too, am a silence junkie. It’s rare to find true stillness. Wilderness camping, canoeing in the middle of a large lake, during an electrical outage–where else? I find myself surrounded by noise–especially now that I live in an area with a much denser population.

  5. Yes! I haven’t been very chatty on social media this past year; turning if off, and not inflicting upon others, has been a priority. At the beginning of January I posted on slowing down all social media and was deleting accounts, removing permissions to be indexed by search engines, etc. Interestingly, that post received tons of hits. Perhaps many of others feel this way, too.

      1. I’m heading to Canada tomorrow for 10 days R & R. My reading list includes two short novels by Steinbeck and The Goldfinch. I have never read much Hemingway…yet. 🙂

  6. I definitely need time quiet time to myself, but I was better at disconnecting when I was at home in Scotland – it was easy to leave my phone at home and go for a internet-free walk on the beach, where I was the only person around. I feel much more ‘switched on’ here, and I have to make much more of an effort to disconnect from technology.

    I haven’t seen gas pumps with TV screens yet – it sounds so absurd. That would definitely be a funny expat moment to write home about!

  7. “To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.”

    Spot on. I’m hermit like by nature, so what you describe above was something I longed for every day in a former office working suburban life. A thousand surface interactions everyday for the sake of getting by.

    What I love about travelling solo, working for myself, living in no fixed location, is that I am permanently afforded opportunities to speak to no one for days on end. I do communicate a lot via email and various forms of messaging, as my business demands this. But no speaking. I’m very lucky to be with someone who gets my strange habits and leaves me be.

    When I do have face to face interactions though, they’re much more meaningful because I am rested, mentally defragmented, and have the energy to give to whoever I’m meeting with.

    A year and a half of freelancing so far: the money is crap, but it’s good for the soul.

    “I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy.”

    I need to learn this. One day, when I can afford it, I will come to you for coaching.

    1. I hear you! I am fairly sure this is one reason freelancing works better for me — I am not happy with all the small and happy talk and politics of office life.

      Coaching would be fun! One of these days you’ll get (back) to NY. 🙂

  8. As the saying goes, silence is golden! I find it very hard to write essays and do research when there are distractions, so I make a conscious effort to disconnect from email, Facebook, Twitter etc! Part of the reason why I resisted getting a smartphone for so long was because I didn’t want to add another tempting distraction into my life.

  9. wow, what an amazing experience that retreat must have been. very freeing. like you, i am a chatter so it is hard for me to fathom, but i can imagine….

    when my girls were young, and we’d be driving somewhere, we took turns with music. when it was my turn, i sometimes chose silence as my option, which no one could understand, but it was all i craved at that moment.

  10. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

  11. I think that, for most of us, the desire for silence increases with the years. One of the advantages of hearing loss is the option of turning off the hearing aids. I am fortunate to live where I can have a minimum of noise at all times and I go to urban areas reluctantly and only when absolutely necessary.

  12. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains taught me to value silence and the natural noises of the landscape more than anything. I’ve lived in Cairo and Berlin, both very big and loud cities that I love dearly, but I often find the hustle and bustle overwhelming after a few weeks. I love the Sleep Pillow app, where I can just listen to prairie or forest sounds while I’m at work, on a train, or in a booming cafe. You might find it nice too!

    1. Cairo sounds insane — I have a friend who’s living there now. I’ve yet to visit Berlin but would like to…

      I tend to escape to the woods, which we have 10 minutes from our apartment.

      Thanks for commenting — love your blog!

  13. tm

    I’m not very good at paying attention. My mother would tell me I’m horrible at it, I’m always distracted by some shiny thing. ‘Paying attention requires energy’. Yes, interesting. I did a 10-day Vipassana silent retreat 2 and a half times. Not only was it silent, but we couldn’t exercise or do yoga or write or listen to music. We had to sit in silence ALL day and meditate. Each day we had 40 minutes to walk around a field. On day one I walked and mentally cursed this F-ing place and why had I come. My back ached. A minute seemed like an eternity. I was hungry. 10 days would be like ten decades of bordom. I did 10 laps of the field. On day two on my walk I thought about the woman I shared a room with. She brushed her teeth in a way that made me sick. I did ten more laps. On third walk I counted down seven more days to go. I walked 8 laps. On fourth walk I thought about the great lunch they served us. I walked 7 laps. On day five I noticed the stones, the weeds, the twigs and the different colours of bark on the trees. I walked 5 laps. On day six I noticed the texture of the flowers and stones, I saw bugs and stopped to poke at things in the ground. I walked 5 laps. On day seven we only had three days left. On day eight wind, grass, one foot in front of the other. I walked 3 laps. On day nine I walked. Nothing else. On day ten when it was time to talk no one wanted to but when we did we were all filled with such joy.

    Silence should be prescribed by doctors. Silence teach me to pay attetion. I should do another retreat.

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