When you are a small child, most of what you see will be found to be indistinct, a bewildering multitude of details that are odd, unusual and featureless. William James once said that for a baby all is “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” The small mind will come to rest only when it finds an interest that allows it to linger. When a child finds an object, a sight, a movement, and object, or even a color, to be interesting, the whole scene comes alive. It is interest that fuels the child’s ability to develop a strong power of attention. Having an interest is a mental affection the child feels for something outside of itself. It is the alliance between attention and interest that impels a child to return again and again to an idea or a sensation, in order to gain further insight and power over what has made it curious. The child’s mind then starts creating meanings and a clearer experience out of chaos.
People sink out of sight in the pedestrian details of their lives. They are captives of repeated falsehoods or distractions that sabotage any settled sense of purpose. An interest secures attention, but to sustain any interest we have to visit it as much as we can. To develop an interest takes time, and an interest has its enemies in restless child’s mind that tempt it away from its task of focusing. The depth of an interest testifies to its genuineness in the child.
Attention knits superficial impressions into something of worth. A rapid succession of images or sounds can bring up flickers of interest, like rising soap bubbles that burst in meaningless futility, but it is the faculty of attention, urged on by an affectionate interest, that starts to mold mere bundles of sensations into a meaningful experience for tiny human beings. A noise can startle or a TV can blare, but its occurrence most likely won’t be an occasion that prompts thought. Unfortunately, we live in a time where life is feverish, hurried, hasty, thoughtless, and, most of all, discontinuous. Life provides us all with many eye-catching events that our minds to can effortlessly drift over without giving our intellect any motive to explore them or give us a reason for discovering more about them.
Today’s children are active, but they are not focused; they dodge the labor of attention and the result is that what they see is all a restless, excited, overcharged and full of a great meaninglessness. Today’s children are not forced to pay attention to anything, but instead, full of aimless energy, they succumb to aimlessly floating upon a sea of un-discerned sensations, and thus does daily boredom resume its tyranny over the young and unthinking. It pays to remember that to read or listen or observe demands a good amount of self-sacrifice. To give up when you first experience boredom or resistance testifies to a certain flabbiness of fiber. You cannot master anything by being inattentive. Every worthwhile intellectual product, like a book, an essay, a play or a novel has its own unique structure, its key informing points. The use of repetition of themes or reappearance characters, unexpected twists and surprises of plot, the differentiation of character, all act to make a book intelligible. To hurry though a book, reading it in only to gut it of huge amounts of information, will damage any attempt to create sympathic understanding for its style, its finish, its beguiling and effective arrangement, its staging of incidents and presentation of character. Having an interest means submitting to an inner direction. A book, TV, a noise outside, listening to a conversation -- none of these things has much reality until we start paying attention to them.
Letting unsupervised kids flit from one thing to another doesn’t help them to grow mentally. Today they are incessantly barraged and deafened by TV programs hurled at them one after the other; they are awash in a turbulent sea of junky, diverting animals and games that are powered by batteries that blare out popular songs or, on the TV, display melodramatic plots of extreme violence on TV, and the result is that the games and programs dull the developing attention of the child. Because of incessant distractions, the full range of their native mental activities is never really brought into to play. The momentary and superficial never deliver on their promises.
My wife and I have an extremely bright and imaginative grandchild who is ten and who will ask you a question that takes some work answering. One day, he asked my wife how many US presidents were killed by assassination, and I was dragooned into briefly answering it, only to find that the child clearly wasn’t listening. He clearly wanted to be somewhere else. “I have to go back and watch TV,” he said. I was taken aback. He is a copious talker, and I certainly can be, but in this instance I was trying to be terse. I was annoyed. So I said, “It was your question, not mine.” What made me bridle was his lack of the patience to wait for the answer to his own question, and yet he spends fruitless hours every day watching programs like “Pawn Stars” or mind numbing Disney shows, scripted by jaded Hollywood adults, who have very infantile ideas of life that purvey a false, sordid and counterfeit childhood, the motive of which activity is, of course, to market toys and merchandise. Programs like “Pawn Stars” teach a child the price of everything and the value of nothing.
All impressions are not of equal value. You have to withdraw from some in order to deal more effectively with others. An impression that returns again to the mind enables the mind to begin think about a subject rather merely to be amused by it. The chief rule is that attention as a faculty of the mind needs tending if it is to grow. Not to ask the human mind any questions about what it is seeing is a way to uproot the seedlings of knowledge before they are ripe. The current way of raising children is devised in most cases by mothers who are so overworked or overburdened with work and chores that they plunk a child down in front of the TV as a haven of rescue from insanity and chaos.
I cannot date when the change came in raising kids, but I am old enough to know that my own childhood took place out of the reach of the media. Bagehot once said that solitude is the best food for a child who wants to become self-reliant, and when I was small a living in a rural area, I was simply told to go outside and play. This required that I have first-hand experience of real things. All children have a natural desire, akin to curiosity, for widening their range of acquaintance, with persons and things. There is a feeling of insufficiency until the contact is made. Observing keenly and repetitively is the open door to wider meanings and the expansion of the understanding. Since I was left on my own, relying only one my powers of noticing, I did notice and logged the impressions even though I wasn’t sure what they meant. When I was three years old, my family lived in a white frame house that had a red barn haunted by a booby man (I was told.) I had no TV or any companions to play with when I was little, I was simply turned loose in the woods to observe. So I steered clear of the booby man, but I saw many things.
Our property had an apple orchard, and I remember finding peach pits on the ground, and, with wonder, I began to immediately proclaim them “coconuts.” There was a horse pasture at the end of the properly, marked by a picturesque split rail fence, and rising behind it, up on a hill, was a solitary farm house. In the evening, I used to watch in fascination as evening slowly came on, and details became indistinct, and the horses would plod, head down, towards the end of the pasture where they spent the night. It was profoundly moving -- the sight of the fading light of day, the tired bearing of the animals -- it was all magical. I never knew until that moment that landscape could move me – that it could play like a bow on my soul. Once when I was wandering in the back of the barn, I saw a pair of lights back in the dark under the body of the barn. I saw them and stared they just stared back at me. They never changed. They were silver. My wonder grew. With breathless eagerness, I told my parents. They were not impressed. It didn’t matter. During the day I would go down and find the lights, and each day I would come up and talk excitedly to my parents about the lights.
They were not very good parents, and they had that bad habit of bad parents who talked of the young as if they were not present in the room. So my mother would say, "Richard has seen lights," and my father joked, “Well I’m sure he’ll see many lights in his day,” but my mother said, , “But he says he sees them a lot,” and my father said, “Well, he’ll be having an imaginary friend next.” Almost every day I would go down and find the lights except one day something interesting happened. Something that made me stare. There was not simply one pair of lights, but two. Two? I was intensely puzzled. I kept staring at this newfound wonder of two lights when the pair on the right, the newest pair, began to move. I stared. The lights moved again, except this time the lights seem to move down heading slowly for me. The other pair of lights stayed whey they were. My fear was vivid and immediate. I bolted. That night at dinner, I told my parents, but they simply said, “How interesting,” and went right on talking.
The next day, there was a phone call. A bob cat had eviscerated a German shepherd in the neighborhood the night before. Apparently the scene was ghastly. Jittery parents urged everyone orders were keep an eye out for the bob cat. It was then, after the phone call (which I hadn’t heard) that my father asked me about the lights back under the born. All eagerness, I told him of the lights. My father, then said something under his breath to my mother. When he had returned to my room, he had a serious face, a stern face, and he was carrying a .38 caliber revolver. He wanted me to show him where the lights had been. I went down a way, stopped and pointed, but he forbade me to go farther. Stationing me far to his rear, he went down graded gravel, when ahead, suddenly there was vigorous movement. My father aimed. Covering my ears, and I stared in astonishment as my father fired several rounds of .38 bullets down by the barn. He had glasses like a portholes on submarine . My final view of the bobcats was that of their white rear ends soaring over the wood of the split rail face to forever disappear.
Those days are gone. Today people are bent over their cellphones, their tablets, engrossed in the commonplace. They are all unconnected, disassociated atoms. Their minds notice nothing, and today they are unfixed, rootless and wandering. They are hardly aware of the groundwork of their thoughts. All reasoning is mesmerized by the power of gadgets. The possession of gadgets had transformed normal, thinking individuals to a psychological crowd that makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act if they were in a state of isolation. Today you cannot even read an article on the web without some ad winking, blinking shimmering image that uses mere motion to seduce us from we are trying to learn. Advertisers seem to assume that we are equivalent to the American Indians who gave away New York for 24 dollars worth of trinkets. Unfortunately, the commonplace has the power of numbers. It spreads its stupidities the way a mosquito spreads a virus. The commonplace only knows a very meager, narrow and very limited sphere of life and it has no reach of imagination and therefore cannot conceive of knowing things far beyond the reach what they currently know. The mind is hierarchical, it is not democratic, and when it become democratic the mind has become debased and is in the process of losing its keener powers. All perceptions are not equal, and just as all people are not created equal. Human beings may be equal in the sight of god or equal under the law, but when ordinary people emerge from those intimidating presences, many end up doing the dead man’s float mentally. It is a sad comment on the times.