There’s this line you’ve probably seen before, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It’s often attributed to Plato or Philo, but they almost certainly said no such thing. Nevertheless, I like the sentiment; there’s a good deal of truth to it. Sometimes, though, it is a battle to be kind. It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.
This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.
Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.
I’m thinking about all of this after reading Evan Selinger’s essay in Wired about technology and etiquette. In it Selinger reminds us that “effort is the currency of care.” That is remarkably well put.
Here’s another line that I like: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” That one is from Simone Weil. Simone Weil did not have a smartphone, they weren’t around then; yet attention was still considered rare.
But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.
Maybe that means putting the smartphone away or turning it off or getting rid of it altogether. Maybe it means doing the same thing with a book. But it also means recognizing that you’re doing so not because of what you know about the smartphone or the book, but because of what you know about yourself.