Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sermon: "Choose Your Own Attention" (Delivered 6-9-13)

Call to Worship
Let me describe a famous psychology experiment.  There is a video of six basketball players in a gymnasium.  Three are wearing white shirts, three black shirts.  The players in white shirts run around passing a basketball between them while the players in black shirts do the same thing, passing their own basketball amongst themselves.  Participants in the experiment are instructed to watch closely and count the number of passes between the players wearing white.  After the video ends they are asked whether they noticed the gorilla.  Yes, during the video a person in a gorilla suit had walked directly through the middle of the basketball game.  The gorilla even ducks at one point to avoid being hit by a basketball.  According to the experiment, a full 50% of the research subjects do not notice the gorilla.  “What gorilla?” they say.  In fact, many of the participants who did not see the gorilla became incredulous.  They are adamant that there had not been a gorilla.  If there had been, they certainly would have noticed it.

Academically, this study on the psychology of attention is interesting.  The real life implications, however, are frightening.  A gorilla might walk right in front of us on the street and we might not even notice.  The experiment tells us that we think we see, notice, and remember far more than we actually do.  There are things happening in the world all around us that we do not notice because our attention is focused somewhere else.  Does anyone else find this to be a distressing thought?

Spiritually, the implications are just as significant.  Spiritual traditions including meditation, yoga, and prayer help us to break our self-limiting patterns of distraction, obsession, and worry. They liberate us to be more present, more attentive to what matters.  This morning we give our attention to the spiritual practice of paying attention, of noticing, of seeing.  Come let us worship together.

First Reading
This reading comes from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life.”

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

Second Reading
from Ralph Waldo Emerson

A person will worship something – have no doubt about that.  We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts – but it will out.  That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character.  Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.

I wavered about whether to give this sermon or not because the topic seemed a little too indulgent.  (But then I figured, that this morning’s sermon is actually the 398th of these preachings I’ve delivered and that maybe I deserved to be a little indulgent from time to time.)

Last month a newer visitor of the church sent me an email out of the blue asking me if I might consider preaching about my reactions to a viral video that was making its way around the web.  The subject of that viral video consisted of excerpts of a commencement speech given by the author David Foster Wallace.  There’s no way that the visitor sending me this email could have known that Wallace held a privileged place in the pantheon of my favorite authors of all time, which consists exclusively of David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, and Marilynne Robinson, with one rising above the others depending on the day or the moment.  There’s no way the visitor could have known that I’ve read just about everything Wallace has ever published, from his amazing novel Infinite Jest and his posthumously published novel The Pale King which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, to his three collections of essays that include A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, to his three short story collections, to his non-fiction book about the mathematics of infinity and the mathematician Georg Cantor, which I admit to struggling through.  I should not that even though he’s my favorite – or near favorite – I also am careful about recommending him.  He can make you want to tear your hair out

So, anyways, back in 2005 David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College.  The title of his speech was “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life.”  And, about a month or so ago, a nine minute excerpt of this commencement speech was made into a viral video that spread all over the web and then just as quickly began to be scrubbed from the web because the person responsible for making the video had failed to obtain the permission of David Foster Wallace’s literary trust.  Maybe the most memorable passage of Wallace’s commencement speech involves him describing a visit to the supermarket in agonizing detail.

[L]et's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your… job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your… job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket.  It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping.  And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating.  But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine…  The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations…  The lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer…  Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

This commencement speech sounds like something that could have very well could have been said by a professor of psychology in our congregation who, among other things, has studied what are called attributions.  Attributions are the meanings that we attribute, that we ascribe, to other people’s actions as well as to our own.  They are the stories that we create to make meaning out of our lives.  In the story that Wallace tells, he is the hero of his own story, the protagonist.  Bravely fighting through traffic.  Valiantly maneuvering through the grocery store.  Heroically surviving other people’s agonizing and antagonizing stupidity and inefficiency and incompetence.  There is the tendency to attribute positive motivations and qualities to ourselves and negative motivations and qualities to others.

But then Wallace reminds us that there are other stories that we may tell, stories that may not come as easily or automatically.  What if the other people that surround us are not trying to persecute us?  What if they are all the heroes of their own stories, demonstrating some amount of grace and resilience in their lives that would astound us if we only knew of it?  What if they are actually as bored and frustrated as we are?  What if they actually have more tedious and more painful lives than ours?

David Foster Wallace chooses a religious word – compassion – to describe the act of paying attention to something besides our own default settings.  Compassion, the word literally means “suffering with.”  To be able to cultivate this quality called compassion requires attention.  You actually have to choose to see another’s pain, to notice the hurts of the world.  You actually need to decide that another’s suffering or discomfort is worthy of your attention.

For Wallace, who is of course giving his commencement speech at a prestigious college, it is education, a liberal arts education, that empowers us to choose our own attention, to choose what we notice and pay attention to and value, to author the story of our experience in such a way that we move away from our default settings and consider other possibilities, make other meanings.
For Wallace this is something that comes from education, the ability to choose, to decide, what we think about, what we worship, what, as Emerson puts it, “dominates our imaginations and our thoughts [and] determine[s] our lives, and character.”

It seems to me that this is something that religion and spirituality also can help us to do to the extent that prayer, meditation, centering, etc. can keep us grounded and can remind us to open ourselves to others, to practice compassion and hospitality and acceptance of one another, can remind us of how we are connected and can remove from us the sense of our own isolation.

Grocery store.  Rush hour traffic.  Crowded gathering.  The line at the DMV.  These are all examples of times when we have the intellectual choice and spiritual discipline to choose our own attention.  How do you do at this?  If you ask my wife Anne she’d probably tell you that I might as well be preaching to myself here, that I really struggle with patience in some of these situations.

But, if we look past these instances of daily aggravations, we find that we are surrounded with opportunities to choose what we pay attention to.  This happens in relationship.  This happens at work.  This happens at church.  As it turns out, more often than not, our fixations, our obsessive thought patterns, our insistence on focusing on one thing prevents us from seeing the larger picture.  Alternatively, we can choose our own attention .

When I talk about choosing what to give your attention to, I’m not saying that life will become happier if you choose not to pay attention to injustice or things that genuinely do harm to human life.  There are truly awful things that deserve our sustained attention, but perhaps that is only possible when we choose a different way of facing the petty and mundane aggravations of life.

My charge to you is that next time that you find yourself in a situation that you find frustrating – whether that is waiting in line at coffee hour as the person in front of you takes way too long to stir in sugar, or in a long line at the store with far too few cashiers, or getting fed up with someone who offense you are sure is deeply personal – next time you find yourself in such a situation, see if you can’t choose your own attention and imagine a different story than your own default setting.

The person who drives an obnoxious tank of an SUV?  Maybe, as David Foster Wallace suggests, maybe this person was in a horrible automobile accident and has all but been ordered by her therapist to drive this in order to feel safe.

Maybe the person screaming at her children in the store has actually been up for three straight nights holding the hand of her husband dying from bone cancer.

Maybe the person who cuts you off in traffic is rushing to get to his son’s baseball game, the game he promised he’d be there to see.

Maybe.  Maybe. Maybe.