On not noticing

Thinking about the infinite distractions of contemporary affluent life, Laura Miller glosses Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, thus:

Your very self, “stored in your memory,” is the product of what you pay attention to, since you can’t remember what you never noticed to begin with.  [Via Andrew Sullivan.]

Much depends here on what “remember” and “notice” mean, I guess, but this doesn’t sound right.  There’s a certain sense in which it’s clearly true: some kinds of intellectual content, for example, you probably need to become aware of before you can remember them.  (This is why, in class or in a paper, it helps to make something a problem.)

But the experience of sustained intimacy, whether based on families, love relationships, or friendships, suggests a host of exceptions: The experience of not being aware of something until it’s gone is proverbial.  There’s also a different kind of memory: The lived memory of habit and attitude, built up reflexively, and sometimes non-consciously (avoiding unconscious here to forestall a distracting argument about Freud, who’s probably relevant here).  When you first live with another person, and they ask “how come you always X?”–the reason is a kind of memory.  Sometimes it’s explicit–“In my house, we *always* puree the cat for dinner, never breakfast.”  But lots of times it just reflects the built-up years of making largely unreflective inferences about people, based on hints and guesses.

We can also borrow Wordsworth: “the best portion of a good man’s life” are his “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.”

In the main, I agree with Miller (and Gallagher, as presented by her): attention matters.  After all, Wordsworth recoils from the busy city streets into communion with nature.  But I’m not as sanguine about collapsing selfhood into “things we’ve consciously noticed.”

This entry was posted in productivity. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.