The Lost Art of Paying Attention

Being in university often means not having a life beyond yourself. As you say good riddance to mid-terms and march toward finals, free time will be spent in libraries, in labs, on laptops and doing presentations. The need to cram every last bit of testable knowledge into your memory will take precedence over watching television or reading magazines. The outside world will become nothing but a distraction, and you will look forward to summer, when you can let everything go and just stop caring.

The degree to which students — myself included — learn to tune out the noise of the world is troubling. It’s easy to justify doing so during the school year because we all have better things to do, but we also do so during the summer because, well, we have even better things to do. Sometime between first and second year we learn how to briefly escape routine and enjoy ourselves by going out with friends or wasting time on the Internet. However, that’s time that could be spent getting a different sort of education than the one acquired during class hours.

More than being students of our faculties, we are students of the world, and it keeps spinning whether we pay attention or not. Both amazing and terrible things happen, and, even if events don’t direct affect us, there is no downside to simply being aware that they occurred. No one is asking you to sacrifice a movie night with your friends to read this week’s issue of MacLeans from cover to cover. You don’t need to be an expert; you just need to be aware.

So what are the benefits to paying attention? Especially during the school year anything worth your time should be done for good reason. Unfortunately, there will be no tests or final exam. You might win a few games of Trivial Pursuit, but that’s inconsequential. To understand the benefits of paying attention, you must look at the larger picture.

Knowledge of a world greater than yourself is essential in order to actively participate in society. You can’t go to a gallery opening unless you know where it’s going to be. You can’t vote unless you know there’s an election. You can’t donate unless you know there was a disaster.

But maybe you have no interest in going to galleries, or voting, or helping global relief efforts. Maybe something else takes priority in your life. However, it’s one thing to not know that Manitoba has a new premier because you’re waist-deep in hastily scribbled notes, but it’s quite another to not know because you’re “just not interested in politics.” Some topics may seem dry, but that’s really no excuse for ignorance. Apathy prevents people from participating in society, and prevents society from benefiting from each individual. It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by one thing not being as exciting as something else you enjoy more. It’s living in an endless “summer,” so to speak.

University is a great time to start paying attention, if you haven’t been already. You’re surrounded with resources — libraries, classes and student groups. Never in your life will you find such a wide array of people willing to educate you and give you opportunities to participate as a citizen of your city, your country and the world. Widen your gaze and take advantage of that.

Paying attention does not take an extraordinary amount of effort. Read a newspaper. Watch the news. Subscribe to an RSS feed. Find a way to make dull things interesting to you — watch satirical news shows like This Hour has 22 Minutes or The Daily Show to get into politics if you need to. Anything to keep you informed and active in society, so that next time you see a box filled with spare change at a grocery store checkout you will know why that money is needed. So that next time there’s an election you’ll know who to vote for. So that when you graduate you’ll be prepared to take your place amongst everyone. All it takes is just paying attention.