Although attention is a reading of what is around us, it is also timely self-awareness. We want to be aware of how we are reacting to the circumstances at the very time we are reacting to them. We want to make sure that there is a good fit between how we feel and what we do. Somebody's words hurt us and we perceive a swell of outrage inside. Let's stop for a moment to pay attention to it. Is it warranted? Are we overreacting? Are we about to respond in a way we will soon regret? As a friend asks us to recommend him for a job, our first reaction is one of uneasiness. Before we do anything else it's a good idea to pay attention to why we feel that way. Is it because we honestly believe he is not a good candidate for the job? Is it because we resent his good opportunity? Is it a mixture of the two?
Attention looks two ways: outward and inward. As it checks the world, it checks our souls. It is up to us to put to good use its inexhaustible wealth of information. When we manage to do that, we are at our best and live life to the fullest.
Salt and Pepper
When I teach my courses on civility and manners, I tell my students: "We are eating together in the university cafeteria and I ask you to pass me the salt. What do you do?"
The exchange that follows that question usually goes like this:
"I will pass you the salt," answers student A, somewhat puzzled by having to state the obvious.
"What else?" I press.
"That's it," he replies. "You asked for the salt and I'll pass you the salt."
"What else?" I insist.
Fifteen seconds of silence, then a tentative answer comes from student B: "I will pass you the pepper as well?"
"Yes," I reply. "That's what we find in books of etiquette: salt and pepper always travel together. The books, however, neglect to tell us why. You tell me, then, the reasons behind the rule."
Student B is ready now: "I will give you the pepper as well because you may need it later?"
That's indeed part of the rationale. And that's where ethics intersects etiquette. "You," I tell student B, "will be thinking of a need of mine that may or may not become apparent. By doing what you are doing, you are not just observing an arbitrary rule. Your act has an ethical component, since it requires attention and consideration. If the essential feature of the creep is self-centered obliviousness, you are the opposite of a creep."
At this point somebody points out that keeping saltshaker and pepper mill together makes it easier to locate them. The next person who needs them will not have to chase them around the table. "By following the rule, then," I conclude, "we show consideration for people we don't even know." The students are intrigued by this unveiling of implications. They talk about the salt and the pepper with their friends and their dates. And they begin to understand that a humble book of etiquette can be used as a primer in moral philosophy. This meditation on good manners and their ethical underpinnings both expands and gives focus to the students' awareness of the needs of others. My hope is that repeated exercises like this will make them less likely to engage in recklessly self-centered—or even abusive—behavior.