Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pay Attention: Take Off Those Headphones, Put Away That Video Game, Close That Book ...

Remember when you were a kid, sitting around with a book, or a game, or just daydreaming, and some adult -- a parent or a teacher or maybe a coach -- yelled at you, "Pay attention."

And you said -- automatically -- "I am paying attention."

But, of course, you weren't. You were in your own world, and just trying to keep a small piece of your mind alert for what the adult in question found important, to stay out of trouble. Not very successfully, I might add, or they wouldn't have yelled at you.

Now I'm not here to criticize you for tuning out boring teachers or lectures on cleaning up your room -- far from it. My high school English teacher's take on English poets drove me nuts, so I sat in the back of the room and read Sartre. These days I tend to read and listen to the radio while eating dinner.

But I've noticed something: If there's an interesting news report on the radio, or a song I really love, I tend to read a page without knowing what I read. Likewise, when I get engrossed in what I'm reading, I miss what was said on the radio, often coming out of my fog to find that I've just missed the story I most wanted to hear. And sometimes I find I've finished dinner without noticing what I ate.

And I really didn't listen to the English teacher.

If you're really paying attention to one thing, you're giving something else short shrift. That doesn't really matter when you're home alone with the radio and a book, but it's hugely important when you're walking down the street. Or driving.

I've been musing on this ever since I heard about the tragic rail crash in Los Angeles, in which at least 25 people died. Some reports on the crash suggest that the engineer was text-messaging at the time of the crash -- though I don't know if this has been actually proved -- and there has been a rush to pass a rule against using portable electronics while running a train.

Now you'd think such a rule wouldn't be necessary, that any sane person would know you couldn't drive a train and text message at the same time. But given the number of people who drive cars while talking on their cell phones (and yes, text messaging), it appears that there are large numbers of people who really don't understand how much attention it takes to operate a train or a car, and how much their attention can be dragged away by an interesting text-message conversation.

It's just too easy to get caught up in one of the things you're doing, at the expense of the others, and if the thing you're not paying attention to happens to be dangerous, accidents happen.

How does this tie into self defense? If you're paying attention, you can avoid whatever trouble is up ahead, whether it's bad traffic or someone who gives you the creeps. Protecting yourself from attack by other human beings is really quite similar to protecting yourself from accidents.

Don't handicap yourself by dividing your attention when you're driving, biking, or even walking or jogging. Keep yourself and others safe: Pay attention.

No comments: