What should we pay attention to?

Isabella Hunter, Opinion Columnist

In Japan, people sleep on trains! Or at least that was the claim made by YouTuber oliSUNvia in her video on insignificance. The power of the exclamation lies entirely in how it presents us with a previously unrecognized possibility for our society.

The story behind this exclamation went something like this: An American man visiting Japan noticed that while taking public transport, people would board the train and soon after doze off. He wondered why people in Japan felt so comfortable falling asleep near strangers, and eventually, he started to ask why people in America didn’t. 

This man took note of a phenomenon previously inconceivable to him, observed a meaningful implication and compared it to the reality of the world he has known and lived in. 

Without a process akin to this, one would not be able to expand the horizons of the world they perceive. To pay attention is more than to simply see or notice something. It is to bear witness to it, to let your curiosity ask questions of it and to allow it to change what is conceivable in the world you see. Paying attention can mean to focus, but it can also mean to be open to the world as it presents itself to you. 

A notable place where this type of openness is essential is the interpersonal space. We depend upon each other for recognition and approval, but both of those require action on our part. We must learn to understand the way our interactions with others affect us, and we must listen when others are reacting to us, even in more casual contexts. In order to affirm someone’s point of view, we first need to pay attention to what that view is and to how it is expressing itself in their mannerisms and displayed emotions. 

As rudimentary as that sounds, it’s the basis of our social interaction. How would we grow up to be healthy people without the attention and responsive action of our parents, who (hopefully) listened to our needs and affirmed us in our unorthodox ways? How would we have compassionate partnerships, ongoing friendships or positive conversations with professors if not for a dedication to awareness and responsiveness? 

Of all the things to pay attention to, this would seem like one of the most important, yet difficult tasks to perform. Our judgments, prejudices and past traumas will always creep in to tell us how other people are and how we are. These judgments set the limits for our world. We break out of our own boxes not by thinking our way out, but by opening our eyes and ears to the possibility that we aren’t in a box at all.