11. Paying Attention
We can learn to perceive the world in hopeful ways. That is to say: we have some measure of agential control over our perceptions. In this chapter, I want to think about a particular aspect of perception, which we can call paying attention.
I borrow an illustration from Mark Bernier, author of The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard. (The example comes from one of Mark’s conference papers, not his book. I will have more to say about the “task” of hope in a later chapter.) Mark inspired the example, but he is not responsible for the lessons I derive from it.
Imagine a man hiking a logging road in the Maine woods. Hunting season is over, and winter has set in. He visits the woods late in the year precisely because almost no one else does. A farmer in a pickup truck waved to him an hour ago, the only person he has seen since leaving his car a hundred yards from the end of the pavement. He loves quiet and the beauty of the forest. On an impulse he leaves the road, walking down a slope into the stillness of nature. The snow isn’t deep, and his boots keep his feet dry and warm. He wanders deep into the wilderness. He sees the forest as a natural cathedral, full of majesty and mystery.
Then he slips. The snow isn’t deep, but it concealed a soft patch or a fallen branch. He falls, rolls, and hears a terrifying snap. The pain of a broken leg surges through him, followed by a wave of fear. He cannot walk. Now five inches of snow—before, merely an element of forest beauty—constitutes a deadly threat, because he must crawl back to the logging road.
He had planned to walk out of the woods in daylight. Now? At best he might reach the road before dark. Out of cell phone range, the hiker realizes his survival depends on two things: reaching the road and the arrival of a rare passerby. He chose this day for his hike partly because few vehicles would use the road, yet now he yearns for the sound of an engine. If one comes, the loudest sound he could make is a scream. His fingers curl around a stone; rising on his knees he might be able to throw it to the road and get the attention of a driver. As he crawls uphill toward the road, he listens intently for any indication of a vehicle.
Reflect for a moment on the hiker’s attention. The beauty and serenity of the forest no longer register in his mind. The hoped for sound of an engine is all that matters. No one would fault the hiker for this. His survival depends on hearing a vehicle and successfully signaling its driver.
Notice how the hiker’s situation fits Adrienne Martin’s incorporation thesis. It is not impossible that a car or pickup could come, though it is very unlikely. The hiker rightly judges that the arrival of a vehicle is possible and that it is of great practical importance. Therefore he “licenses” himself to hope for one.
The hiker’s attention resembles, but is slightly different from Andy Dufresne perceiving Shawshank Prison’s walls as possible escape routes. In hopeful perception, one construes something or sees something as having certain features. In hopeful attention, one is not construing or interpreting sensory information; rather he readies himself to receive certain information. Hopeful perception (Andy Dufresne) interprets what already is; hopeful attention (the hiker) looks for what may be.
The difference I am describing between perception and attention is so small we might ignore it. But I think it makes a practical difference for hope. Sometimes hope interprets certain features of the world, while at other times hope anticipates or waits for things.
Imagine a Somali refugee in a sprawling refugee camp in Kenya. She lived here with her mother for four years, until her mother died. That was ten years ago. Her desire to return to Somalia evaporated long ago. She wants to emigrate to the United States. To that end, with the help of aid workers, she has made application and submitted to interviews.
The refugee hopes to emigrate. The decision lies in other people’s hands, people whose lives she can hardly imagine—ambassadors, presidents, immigration officials, and so on. These people’s judgments are to her as inscrutable as the pronouncements of pagan gods. Often she gets discouraging news: the quota is full this month, or a new president has decided that refugees from her country should be excluded from the United States. She may interpret or perceive bad news as temporary setbacks; she persists in hope. Additionally, though, her hope consists in attentive waiting. Her hope not only colors the way she interprets today’s news, it anticipates tomorrow’s news. It looks toward something that is not yet.
We will return to the notion of attentive waiting as a component of hope in a later chapter.
For now, back to our hiker. Consider another feature of the hiker’s attention. Out of many things he might attend to, he selects only a few. He is listening for the sound of a car or truck to the exclusion of almost everything else. Other sounds of the forest (admittedly, there aren’t many) he ignores. Selective attention is true of all of us all the time. The world presents us with a kaleidoscope of possible perceptions, and we cannot attend to all of them. It is no objection against hope to say that in hope a person attends to only some aspects of the world. Perhaps a perfectly rational and timeless being (i.e. God) would focus equally on every aspect of the world. But this is not something we should expect of finite dependent creatures such as ourselves.