Where Do You Pay Attention

A Walk, A Good Movie, and an Evening Martini

I’m in the middle of reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, a book about finding focus and concentration in the midst of ubiquitous, shallow connection. Newport’s premise is that when we are constantly connected to other people through technology (always available for a text or an email), then we are constantly distracted. This constant distraction keeps us from getting any deep work accomplished.

In one section of the book, he mentions Winifred Gallagher, a non-fiction science writer, who had to deal with a devastating cancer diagnosis. Instead of dwelling on the fear and uncertainty that such a diagnosis would bring, Gallagher decided instead to focus on taking walks, watching movies, and drinking an evening martini.

She still had to wallow through rigorous cancer treatments and the awfulness that comes with that, but by choosing to focus on her walks, movies, and evening drink to fuel her day instead of the fear and pain of her illness, she remembers her life during that time as being rather pleasant, despite the circumstances.

How we focus our mind and concentration is a human super power that we are quick to dismiss. It’s easy to let life’s circumstances overwhelm us. It’s quaint to think of finding the right job to manage our chaotic surroundings or the right person or the right hobby. If we can control the world around us, then we can find peace and contentment.

Newport says, “We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us determines how we feel.” But that’s actually not true. Newport continues, “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.”

Transitions

My family is still in the transitions of a move. In March of 2018, my husband and I left the town where we had lived for five years. We said goodbye to our friends, our church, our favorite restaurants, our routines and rhythms. But overall, we feel at peace about the decision to move.

And yet, our circumstances are not ideal. As with any major decision, we must deal with the negative consequences when we decided on a certain path. I could easily look at those consequences and think, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t have moved. Maybe we made a mistake.” By the same token, I could look at all we have gained and learned from the move so far and say, “Yes, this is where we should truly be.”

In fact, we could have decided to stay where we were. No one held our feet to the fire to make us leave. In retrospect, we could look back at our circumstances and say, “Oh, we should have stayed where we were,” just as easily as, “Oh, I am so glad we left.”

Looking at this family transition through the lens of Cal Newport’s words, I’m learning that our family happiness has very little to do with where we live, where we work, and what happens to us. In fact, our family happiness depends much more on where we put our attention.

And Both That Morning Equally Lay…

I can’t help but think about the over-quoted and misinterpreted poem by Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken.” I’m sure you’ve heard of it. I had to memorize it in high school. And while most people quote it as a treatise to going against the grain, it’s actually a subtle dig by Frost at humanity’s fruitless efforts to see if one decision or another changed the course of our lives.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I will first point you to a great John Green video explaining the context of this poem. Essentially, Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” about his indecisive friend who hemmed and hawed over which route to take when they walked together. Frost meant it as a teasing tribute. The friend misinterpreted this poem, volunteered to serve in World War I (even though he was really too old to serve), and died.

Most people focus on the last stanza, namely the last three lines,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

These last three lines, lifted from the poem out of context, read like a rallying battle cry to individualism and independence. But, if you read the rest of the poem just as closely, you can see where Frost had different intentions.

In fact, the two roads in the poem offer no difference, really. There’s not a better road to take, and there’s not one that was less traveled. Frost spends most of the poem pointing out that the roads were just two roads in the woods, nothing special.

Frost gives us some hints. The first stanza of the poem has a speaker who comes to a fork in a road. He’s sorry he can’t go both ways. So, he looks down one road as far as he can.

In the next stanza, he looks at the other road: “Then took the other as just as fair.” One road wasn’t better than the other one in other words.

In the next lines, the speaker has some internal struggle and weighs the pros and cons of each road. This second road, has “perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear.” But the speaker must conclude that as far as traveling passengers go, they “Had worn them really about the same.” They were equally traveled roads.

In other words, this poem isn’t about following the crowd or going your own way. There’s not one road that any rube would take because it was safe, and the other road was only for individualistic, mountaineering adventurers in hiking boots.

The speaker continues this thread in the next stanza, “And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” Both were equal. That particular morning both paths were covered over with leaves without evidence of someone else walking through them. Two dumb roads in the woods. Just pick one.

The last stanza is a joke on how our minds work. Humans like to look back on things in hindsight and point out how we made the right decision and an exact right time. We picked the right road. We made the best decision - look at my life and how great I am.

Looking back over our past, we sigh with satisfaction at taking the path less traveled. But the whole poem reminds us that it really doesn’t matter which road we choose; the two roads (or decisions) would yield about the same sort of outcome. Frost is essentially saying, “Just chill out and pick a road. It’s not a big deal.”

Just Pick a Road

Sometimes I think God is a lot like Robert Frost, and we are like the speaker in the poem. We stand at the brink of a decision, and we ask, “What does God want me to do? Where does God want me to go? What path should I take?” And God is standing next to us, maybe leaning against a tree, checking his cuticles, patiently waiting for us to pick a road already.

There are times where we have to deal with our own sin, or we have to figure out how to manage someone else’s sins against us. There are times in our lives where there is a better path - but honestly, those aren’t the times we doubt ourselves. In those situations, we almost always know exactly what we need to do, and we have to decide if we have the courage to do it.

But what I’m talking about now isn’t a parallel to the wide and narrow gate that Jesus talked about in the New Testament. We aren’t choosing between a “good road” and a “bad road” here.

I’m talking about other decisions. The ones that really don’t matter, but we talk ourselves into worrying about them. We question, “Which house should we buy? This house isn’t selling, so should we stay instead? Should we sell our car or pay to get it fixed? Which job should I take? I don’t like my job - should I pick another one? Should I have said that?”

And sometimes the circumstances that we can’t control or change make us think that we made mistakes. We start to question our place in God’s will because our contract fell through on our house. We decide to fix the car, and it breaks down again - maybe God wants us to sell the car? You make plans that keep getting waylaid with hiccups, so you start to doubt that you did the right thing - maybe God doesn’t want you to go.

It gets all muddled together.

But God isn’t at the end of the road. He’s with us the whole time on the path, so it doesn’t matter which road we pick. He’s not a pot of gold or a treasure chest. There’s not a specific path that leads to him, and if we don’t find it, then we are doomed. That’s not how this works. As his disciples, we are already on the road with him. That’s all he wants.

We aren’t going to get lost; God is already with us. If we are paying attention to what really matters - pursuing love and mercy and justice - then who cares how we get there? By focusing our attention to the essentials of life, we release the control of our circumstances on our joy.

When we stop worrying about which road to take, we have more time to find contentment in our lives. We can’t manage the chaos around us, but we can hug people we love. We can pay attention to beauty. We can be a friend. We can seek out opportunities to help others. We can show up and do our work. Those are things we can control, and we don’t need to worry too much about the path we are taking along the way.

The roads are about the same. Just pick one already.

Kelly Wiggains1 Comment