Essays IndexHenry's Home Page

Attention  Without  Intention

A wise man once said, "Wisdom is knowing what to overlook."  Much of what happens around us is better off forgotten, overlooked -- but wisdom is also knowing what to look at, what to remember.

 I recently met an old friend -- he is friend not because I know him well -- but because every time we meet, he is congenial, he is wise, he knows what to look at, he knows what it is I should pay attention to.

He is a dance friend, so most of the wisdom he transmits to me has to do with Contra dancing -- and often it is not that he creates the memorable phrase -- it is that he remembers the phrase.  For instance, he recently said to me that square dancing is "Doing what you have to do, and waiting for the next call."  He said it to me and I did not react:  I did not think the phrase was memorable, worth recording.  Norm said it again and then pointedly said to me, "Isn't that a wonderful philosophy for all of life?  "Do what you have to do -- and wait for the next call."

That is a wise piece of advice.  What is our duty in life?  What should we do second by second?  "Do what you have to do and wait for the next call."

The next call?  From above?  From inside?  From a leader?  That is a big question.  Are you listening to God?  To an inner voice?  To your spouse?  To your hormones?  Who will deliver the call, the message about what to do next?  Well, that is a complicated question, but still the advice is a wise piece of advice.  Involve yourself in the task at hand.  The future?  The future will come soon enough -- and then you'll figure out what to do next.

On a wall at the dance camp we two were attending recently, there was a big sheet of paper on which people were encouraged to scribble graffiti.  Here's is one Norm made may pay attention to: "Contra Dancing is attention without intention. "

What a wise encapsulation of a concept.  In Contra dancing you do pay a lot of attention to the person you are dancing with: you look lovingly into her eyes -- into his eyes.  There is, there should be, a lot of attention but in 99% of the cases it is attention, you look lovingly, without intention.  My love is not going to translate into any act towards you -- except the act of loving you during the whole of this dance.  Attention: I am with you now. Intention: I will pay attention to the next partner, not you, when the next dance starts.

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."  It is not so much that the unexamined life is bad, it is just that the examined life -- understanding what we do, why we do it -- understanding is a pleasure, a thrill.  A wise man is one who will help me be thrilled by the wonder of words, words that explain to me the world around me.  "Do what you have to do, and wait for the next call."  "Contra Dancing is attention without intention."

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

Essays IndexHenry's Home Page