V. 2. As Bob Brewed So Bob Must Drink

 

Outer attention is the ability of the mind to direct the senses toward certain parts of reality and analyze the incoming information. Imagine a long corridor with a row of windows on one side. As we walk past we experience different sensations from the environment beyond them. We can see, smell, feel, hear, and even taste whatever objects exist on the other side. Sometimes what we come in contact with is interesting enough to make us stop and enjoy it for a while; other times the landscape is so boring that we quickly move on. Each of these windows represents a certain time frame of our communication with the outer world. All of them make the most exciting part of our days since they allow us to exercise our senses and cherish the life we are given in its entirety.

I still remember my first terrifying encounter with an existence without senses. Despite his contradictory legacy Jack London’s Wolf Larsen drew tears to my eyes when I first read about his final days. My teenager imagination was appalled by the possibility of being alive without any chance of knowing what’s going on within or outside of your body. I guess I’d been lucky to not have witnessed this condition in real life, yet the last chapters of “The Sea Wolf” haunted me for a long time with the enormity of the described tragedy.

Certainly we are not able to seize all of the occurrences outside the windows. Some of them just escape our notice. But what we capture isn’t equally appreciated either. We automatically dismiss most of it as irrelevant to our current business. We grade the rest since those stimulants differ in their significance to us. As a result some of them barely leave an impression, while others get the lion’s share of our attention and stay with us even after we pass the window they’ve come from. We might see a branch of ripe peaches waving at us from outside, but instead of reaching for a fruit keep moving forward in search of a familiar voice, or a favorite sight.

How does the process of selection and arrangement of our sensations work? Without a doubt, research is the initial step. In order to rate the information, we have to first receive it. We enclose the objects of interest in our useful circle of attention (chapter V. 1.) and with the help of our senses squeeze out whatever we want to know about them. The more challenging or complex the object is, the more time and energy we need to grasp its appearance. This stage is called prehension. Prehension is apprehension (or understanding) by the senses (Merriam-Webster); it is the impassive examination of the object’s specific properties that may or may not be of any use to our cause. Only after prehension can we proceed with our trial to make sense out of the obtained information.

Each new bit of information (or fact), watching for us from beyond every new window, competes to cast its influence upon us. Once we are aware of it, the information is passed to a court which determines its importance. The major judge in the courtroom is our self-perception. Since it determines what realms of the outer world we are to be interested in, it places the fact in wait into the corresponding spot of our perception of the environment. The placement of this fact in our outer perception’s hierarchy determines the degree to which it will weigh in on our behavior. This process is called evaluation. It represents the actual analysis of every single piece of information coming in from our environment, and effects the right arrangement of importance of the external information so that we can act efficiently in close communication with our surroundings. Prehension and evaluation represent the fundamental prerequisite of action. They determine its ultimate success.

What can prevent these interrelated processes from speedy contribution to our interests? Obviously, the answer here lies in the degree to which our attention is susceptible to distraction, on one hand, or bad judgment, on the other.
 
Nobody in the company can accuse Bob for being careless about his responsibilities. On the contrary: to many of his colleagues he seems too stiff and overly focused on his job. He is the last to show up and the first to leave any office celebrations; he never mingles with anyone after work; nobody has ever seen him in something else than in his black slacks, white shirt and tie, even at the occasional “casual Friday”. Yet these days carelessness is exactly what he risks being fired over, and inefficient attention is what he has to blame for the situation he has fallen into.

Everything starts with an interview he conducts with a prospective employee for the archive department he heads. She is a graduate from a high-profile college, and her credentials are brilliant. As a good professional Bob would be able to acknowledge that, if only he could get over the fact that she is a good-looking, blue-eyed blonde. Now all Bob thinks about during the conversation is the cheerful stir among the company jerks that her hiring would cause. They used to mock him for far less, and he knows, especially since he is single, what devastating consequences for him her presence in the department could bring.

Not wanting to become the joke of the year, Bob lets the candidate go, hiring another, far less qualified person instead. A couple of weeks later Bob signs a major contract with a computer firm for digitizing all the archives under his watch, currently representing several decades of data stored in dusty piles on the vast depository shelves. The nerd from the firm he meets with doesn’t get into too many details about the job. Actually he shouldn’t. In him Bob sees himself twenty years ago: energetic, ambitious and full of hope. He doesn’t want to scrutinize the offer, because this would put unnecessary pressure on the guy. Besides, Bob wants to play the cool, all-understanding senior business partner he never had. So he shakes the young fellow’s hand, takes the thin folder with the offer and gives him the advance check.

Next Monday Bob is called in for an urgent meeting with his boss – the owner of the company. In his office Bob learns that the firm he has hired is notorious for the bad service they provide, and is currently under investigation for fraud. Then, he is severely reprimanded for not hiring the blue-eyed blonde, whose graduate project has meanwhile received a prestigious award, and who in her acceptance speech has cited Bob’s company as an example of a short-sighted, sexist organization. Bob feels humiliated as well as scared for his job, especially since the owner’s son – the company’s new CEO, shows an inexplicably cold attitude towards him. He leaves the room in confusion and fear.

Actually there is a very good reason for the CEO’s attitude, even though today he and Bob met for the first time. A couple of days ago the guy got quite a rough treatment from Bob. Were Bob more attentive, he would have noticed the young man running across the lobby that morning, and seen his distinct outer resemblance to the old owner. Back then, having gotten to the elevator first, and lost in his thoughts, Bob didn’t make the effort to hold the door for him, instead letting it close just seconds before the poor fellow could reach it. This derogatory behavior obviously hasn’t passed unheeded, and now Bob has to reap what he has sown. 

What Bob endures is the consequences of the impediments he has put in front of his attention. He has let fear and prejudice distort the information about the female candidate, whose merits would be crystal clear to anyone with even lower intelligence. He has allowed his personal sympathies to stand in the way of a cool estimation of the contracting firm, acting against the established patterns he is actually quite familiar with. In both cases his evaluation process performed far more poorly than what one would expect, thus preventing the facts from getting their well-deserved place in his perception of the environment.

Last but not least, Bob has also made a critical mistake in his prehension during that morning two days ago. Not only did he fail to open his senses to a new fact worth noticing (the surprising appearance of the owner’s son in the building), but even trampled on the most common of common courtesies, neglecting to hold a door open for the person behind him.

Very often it is not our general life philosophy but poorly managed outer attention that makes our decisions inadequate to the ambitions we have and the status quo we maintain. Failing to keep our senses sharp enough and falling into the trap of prejudices, superstitions, or inner complexes can give us a distorted idea of the world and prevent significant outer facts from becoming strong and helpful circumstances in our perception of the environment.

© 2010 Peter Budevski

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