So many human interactions are enhanced by paying attention. Indeed, the opposite is also true. A human interaction can be rendered utterly worthless, bereft of content and destroyed forever, if you don’t pay attention.
I’m increasingly of the opinion that what humans need most, to thrive, are high quality relationships with other human beings. We’re almost hard wired to seek them out. No matter how much of anything else we accumulate, it’s always a high quality relationship that we ultimately seek. No rich man, on his death bed, called for his favourite debit card to be brought to him, to handle, fondle, caress and hold, in his dying moments. Those accumulations of material gains are a proxy and keep alive some vain hope that somebody, somewhere, will be impressed enough with “all that stuff” to give their undivided attention. It’s the love that they really want. It’s the obsessive accumulation of stuff that guarantees they never get it.
I think there is something deeply healing in a high quality human relationship, too. That connection, I am pretty sure, changes the makeup of your stress hormones and triggers different factors in your body to rebuild, recreate and reconstruct any damage that might have been inflicted on your body, at a cellular level. Hugs have power. Understanding can be all it takes to begin to recover.
Older GPs and physicians knew that, when a patient presented with symptoms, some of the most important communication and healing took place when the doctor paid full attention to the patient, listened sincerely and gently touched the affected area, in an act of human solidarity and genuine concern for what might be ailing the patient. That engagement, alone, began the recovery.
In a modern consultation, it’s all a little more remote. Sometimes the doctor won’t lay hands on the affected area at all. Sometimes they won’t even look at, let alone touch your ailing body. No sympathy or empathy is communicated.
Also, whereas once upon a time, the doctor would make notes about your consultation after your visit, today, the computer is open and notes are typed directly into a database, during your short consultation. The consultation reduces, at least in large part, to you and your doctor staring into a database application screen, trying to decide what to say about your condition in as few words as possible and spotting the spelling mistakes and typos of the doctor doing the typing. Suddenly, the focus of attention, during the consultation, is not the patient, who needs treatment and help; it’s the database whose needs take primacy.
At the end of the all too brief session, the doctor presses “print” and a prescription rolls out of the laser printer. You’ve had all the care, attention, sympathy and understanding of a battery hen, at just one more stage of the production line process between your existence on earth and your demise.
That’s perhaps a little harsh, as doctors have extreme time pressures on them and can’t help but suffer some level of compassion fatigue, but when the physician spends as much time with their face in a screen, or looking at dials, as they do actually listening to you describing, sometimes inadequately, what you’re experiencing, it can make the visit feel quite depersonalised and mechanical. You aren’t as likely to wax lyrically about your symptoms. In fact, it encourages you to just shut up about them. Nobody’s listening anyway, so why talk? Many important diagnostic symptoms must undoubtedly remain unarticulated, because of this self-censorship.
With all the emphasis on early diagnosis being the key to successful treatment of so many very serious and life-threatening conditions, you would think there would be more attention paid to not shutting down what the patient is saying about what they are feeling, at the very earliest stages. It must be of the utmost importance to keep the patient talking, but doctors dissuade you from telling the full story about everything you are experiencing. They want you to focus on one ailment and set of symptoms at a time. You are forced to triage. How often do you leave the doctor’s office feeling you didn’t really say everything you thought was important to say? Sometimes, it is the connections between seemingly unrelated conditions that point to the common, more serious, root cause, but that is so often missed, when the doctor wants to type a three line summary into a database.
I think this is true of almost every human interaction I can think of. Taking the time to pay attention, to genuinely listen and to respond in a human way, is becoming a rare occurrence. You can observe this for yourself. People interact in distracted, impatient and superficial ways. They have their own concerns and gadgets to get back to, their own agendas to pursue and their own self-interests to defend, in a dog-eat-dog society, so there isn’t any time or inclination remaining to suspend all of that activity and to take on board somebody else’s concerns, life story, issues, etcetera. We never extend the helping hand or soothing hug. We’re too busy. It just detracts from our screen time. Heaven forbid, the affliction might be contagious and where would you be then?
It doesn’t surprise me that loneliness is on the increase. We have machines designed to train people to cut the people around them out of their consciousnesses entirely, to render directly addressed questions to mere background noise that can be tuned out, to place the entire real world into our peripheral vision, to partition our attention and parcel it out in very small rations and to ignore anything that doesn’t further our own self-interests. The irony is that developing high quality, mutual, deep and loving human relationships is in our ultimate self-interests.
There is a direct and linear correlation between how much a person claims to love their gadgets and how little genuine attention they pay to other people – especially people beyond their immediate family circle. This same self-identified group struggles to pay enough attention to the ones they love most, so strangers barely get a look in. It is through this inattention to the plight of others that we can come to believe that it is possible to actually live on the minimum wage, for example.
It’s not just their relationships that suffer, either. If they communicate, via any art form, be it painting, writing, music or any other medium, their lack of skills in connecting with people at a deep level betrays itself in superficial, un-affective art, which conveys no emotion or meaning and which an audience cannot connect with on any emotional level, because there is nothing there to connect with. They sterilise and render impotent their own artistic outpourings. How tragic it is to be shouting loudly, while saying absolutely nothing. How even more tragic it is if you say something of importance, but there is nobody prepared to listen.
I wonder if you’ve noticed.