Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Attend, Please!"

Recently I read an interesting article in the online version of one of the London dailies. It was a thoughtful piece recounting some moments of unexpected emotional resonance that the author experienced in the aftermath of her ‘very civilized’ divorce. Eschewing an expensive divorce lawyer in favor of a simple paper contract they had drawn up together, the two estranged spouses apparently set about determining the destination of various pieces of shared property.

It was all so polite, so pragmatic, so unemotional. Evidently, they continued to ‘believe the best’ about each other as people of honor, despite the failure of their marriage. Personal schedules were even arranged so that the partner-still-in-residence would be absent when her counterpart (for lack of a better term) showed up to collect whatever possessions were agreed upon as his.

The only snag was the unanticipated, repressed—perhaps, even, compressed?—emotions that simmered near the surface when certain, ostensibly mundane, household items morphed into Objects of Contention. Who knew?

It seemed to me that no particular professional insight was needed to understand this: when an intimate human relationship is torn asunder and the consequent emotional toll is denied, it’s bound to come out somehow…even in so “petty” a matter as who wins possession of the kitchen cutlery. And, sure enough, the writer included a couple of quotes, attributed to behavioral experts, which bore this out.

She wound up her account noting that when all was said and done, she realized that what really lay ahead of her was A New Life; all the rest was just “stuff and nonsense.”

If this is the culmination of her emotional processing and allows her to ‘move on,’ I imagine it was a helpful insight for her.

But, not for the first time, I couldn’t help wonder what all had gone wrong for this couple who had built a life together—gone so wrong that, ultimately, a civilized rupture was the only legacy left from more than two decades together…

On one hand, each story must be as unique as the individuals who inhabit it. On the other hand, people are people and the same human failings probably afflict us all in varying flavors and degrees. I’ve no doubt, based on a cursory glance at the mirror of my own life, that one of the biggest taproots is plain, old self-centeredness. It’s so pervasive we can’t, really, see around it most of the time.

But I think there are also shoots and tendrils branching off, and they’re probably not all that hard to identify. In the London writer’s story, it seemed her former partner spent most of his time ‘traveling abroad’-gone more than he was home. People grow apart, we’re told over and over. There’s no longer a shared life focus and before you know it, couples who were previously ‘in sync’ are careening off in separate orbits. You don’t have to work at it—it just happens. Human nature, the busyness of life…all the usual suspects.

I suspect, though, that to some degree it might really be a matter of Emotional ADD---or, not to put too fine a point on it—failure to attend.

It’s not just Paying Attention. It's Attending, as in these few helpful clues from Webster’s Tenth Addition: “to look after;” “to go or stay with as a companion;” “to be present with;” “to apply the mind or heed.”

We all “attend” to something, all the time. If you’re reading this post it is, by definition, claiming your attention right now. How intentional you were about deciding to focus your time and attention here is a question only you can answer. I know my own attention is all too easily drawn away from previous intentions.

But surely there are some ‘wake up calls’ or alarm bells that ring when we’ve wandered too far afield –when we’ve ceased to attend to those relationships or ideals we once vowed to make Priority. It IS possible to take oneself in hand and ‘make the main thing the Main Thing.’ Maybe not Easy, but certainly Possible.

Note to self: Be aware and Beware…INTEND and then ATTEND to my intentions. It’s a tiring endeavor, no doubt, and impossible to sustain 24/7.

And yet, it seems foolhardy--perhaps even inexcusable-- not to try. Otherwise, it's likely all too easy to one day find oneself, standing in the kitchen, at pains to persuade anyone listening that the collapse of the Really Important stuff of life is all just “stuff and nonsense.”

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