The Value of a Woman’s Inattention

“The function of ignoring, of inattention, is as vital a factor in mental progress as the function of attention itself.”

William James

As mothers and wives, we are called to notice, discern and introspect. However, with every act of noticing, we must leave something unnoticed. And that’s okay; in fact, it may be beneficial. As William James points out, inattention can be a powerful tool in improving our mental health.

Perhaps we are guilty of noticing too much – of noticing what is best unnoticed. Are we overwhelmed by our own judgmentalness and sensitivity? So many offenses weigh us down – could we have let them fly by? Are we too quick to affix labels on others? Could we instead let them develop without the burden of our judgment? As we become aware of the benefit of inattention, of letting go of the ultimately unimportant, we may see an increase in our mental wellness and a strengthening of our relationships. 

Self-Created Reality

What we focus on becomes our reality. Technically that is true. Look at the view out your window. Now, look at any smudges you may have on the window. When you looked at the view, you didn’t really see the smudges. When you looked at the smudges, you couldn’t really see the view. You were in control of what you looked at. If today you went around and looked at smudges all day, you could get some cleaning done. But as you focus on the smudges – you won’t see the view. Reality is based on perception. So when things don’t seem to be going so well – one strategy is to shift our focus away from what we have been focusing on and attend to something else.

A Woman Seated At A Table By A Window, Carl Holsoe

“Reality is created by the mind, we can change our reality by changing our mind.”

Plato

We hear a lot about the danger of “repression” – the bottling up of feelings or impulses. Repressed trauma, for example, may manifest in subconscious and distressing ways. But we mustn’t confuse repression with self-control. I have heard many claim that stifling a sexual impulse is repression. Not confronting that woman at the bank that cut you in line, that’s repression. It is not repression to make a conscious decision to let some emotions, grudges, thoughts, and desires pass away – that’s self-restraint. Not every thought requires rumination and not every impulse should be acted upon.

Moments Chosen for Joy

“Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along: and there is room for very little in each.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Let’s not hold onto things that are of no use to us – there is little room in our finite moments. Often we attend to trifles, misunderstandings, and offenses when we could be putting our attention on more important matters. It is certainly true that some details do matter and that continually sweeping things under the rug can lead to resentment. However, the alternative view seems to be neglected in our modern times – sometimes it’s okay to just let go of an offense, a grievance, and a judgment.  This is particularly true in raising children – if we held onto every misdeed perpetrated by our children, there would be few moments left for joy.

Psychologist Philip Osborne writes of the benefits of having “No problem areas” with our children. “No problem areas ” are times when we can enjoy our child where there is no threat of “seeing the smudges”, and no problems are discussed.* Instituting these “no problem areas” with my children has helped me build relationships that are light-hearted and understanding. I get to take life less seriously, and they get to have a mom who will sometimes take a break from the difficult but necessary corrective duties of motherhood. We don’t want our children to think motherhood is all difficulty and no enjoyment, all judgment and no acceptance, all unselfishness and no love. 

Shoes, Vincent Van Gogh

 My eldest son is a wonderful kid who is generally low-maintenance but he likes nice shoes. I have been somewhat bothered by this emphasis on fashion. In my upbringing, we didn’t get brand-name shoes and so I tend to see such extravagances as excessive. He kept asking for Crocs, which you may have noticed is a new fad among the 12-16 year old demographic. I pushed him off for months. He only had enough to pay for half but was eager to get them. Every bone in my very-frugal body told me, “This is a rip-off and I don’t want him to follow fads!” Yet, I felt my spirit tell me something different, “He doesn’t ask for much, help him get the Crocs.” So one day I surprised him and we went out and got some- and I bit my tongue when I saw the price tag. He was so excited! Now every day at school when I pick him up, he tells me in excitement what gibbets (Croc accessories) he has traded, how valuable the basketball gibbet is, and his plans for future trades. It has become a point of bonding for us as I show genuine interest in this childhood adventure. As parents, we want to teach our children important lessons – lessons like not following fads, but we also need to sometimes ask, “Is this important enough to my child that perhaps I should seek joy rather than judgment?”  

It feels nice to just enjoy the view and build some bonds with our child or spouse. To take a break from strife. When we return from our vacation from judgment, we may see that some of those smudges add character to the window. At the risk of taking this metaphor too far – too clean a window is a hazard for passing birds.

A Focus on Trash

Growing up, my father had one clear-cut household duty – taking out the garbage. I got married and in my mind, garbage was a man’s job. Within weeks of our marriage, we had what I feel is an important conversation for every new couple to have – the division of duties. My husband agreed to trash duty. But for years, he would chronically forget. When cleaning up the kitchen, I would often find an overflowing trash can. I started to see this as a sign of his lack of respect and consideration, and resentment started to grow.  He will only do things when I ask. He isn’t keeping his promises.  I saw a Facebook post where a woman decried her husband’s “toxic” inconsiderate behavior, her sentiment further cemented my own view. As women, we can let our thoughts get away from us. We argued about it. “You can be so inconsiderate!” I said. His response helped me adjust my perception. “You are right, I can be better – but when I give you a break and take the kids to the store, or shovel the walkway – why doesn’t that show you that I am considerate?” 

 I was putting my attention on one thing – the trash. I was letting that frame my perception. I was going down a dark road. His inconsistency with the trash was one reality, a true one. But it wasn’t the only truth. Sure, he was forgetful and didn’t always have my desire for empty trash cans forefront of his mind. But there was another much more important and profound truth – he is a good and loving man, and I am blessed he is my husband. With time, we have learned to communicate and negotiate over each other’s annoying trifles – while also putting them in their proper perspective.

“At every trifle take offense, that always shows great pride or little sense.”

Alexander Pope

The modern bandwagon says, “Cut toxic people out of your life!” Many now label others by their flaws rather than their positives or potential. Our definition of “toxic” is usually based solely on the perspective of the smudges. It is tragic to see people label family members who truly love them as “toxic” because of imperfections or disagreements. If I had let my mind run away with me, I could have created a world where I saw my husband as “toxic”. But when we realize, as William James did, that inattention is just as important as attention, we can create a different reality. We can clean the smudges that need cleaning, while not forgetting to also take a break and focus our eyes on the glorious view.  

‘“Choice of attention–to pay attention to this and ignore that–is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.” 

W.H. Auden

Resources:

*Book: Parenting For The ‘90s, Phillip Osborne https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0934672733/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0

Below: Excellent Q&A with Jordan Peterson. Minute 9 begins some wonderful relationship advice.

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