When I was a kid, my father more than once threatened to get a baseball bat and etch “Steven’s Attention Getter” into the wood. He told and retold a story about a farmer plowing a field behind a stubborn ol’ mule, the punch line of which had to do with the stick the father carried on the plow — the mule’s “Attention Getter.”
Ask around. A ton of men my age had a father who employed this parable about their attention-deficit sons. As an adult, I discovered some of those men were always confident it was merely a wry, editorial commentary. Hyperbole. A joke.
Can’t say that had ever occurred to me. Who knew?
On the one hand, my father was correct, as is anyone who ever braved the waters of rearing a child. “Baby brains,” my kids’ mother used to call it. “Hamster brains,” was my somewhat less flattering description. We both meant the same thing: Children are easily distracted. As a father, I would think “Go brush your teeth” was a fairly simple, self-explanatory directive. But when you are 5 years old, there are multiple, alternative universes to be explored in the 50 feet between the couch you were sitting on and the toothbrush in the bathroom down the hall. Lots can happen. And does.
Yet, there is an irony in this parental observation. What I notice about children — certainly my own children — is their attention-deficit was caused by their singular passion and ability to pay attention! Do you see the twist?
Children are born wide-eyed and filled with wonder. The chief reason they have difficulty following a single, linear plan of attack is because they tend to see all the possibilities. And want to. They struggle to do one thing because they delight in paying attention to everything!
I remember looking into the eyes of my infants and later toddlers, watching them absorb what, for me, were the random details of their surroundings and thinking to myself, “They still remember eternity.” If you are loathe to take that literally, then hear it this way: Infants and toddlers have not yet been socialized to restrain, scorn and censor their imaginations in service to becoming well-functioning cultural beings.
Now that I’m older, I find myself circling back to the mandate: “Steven! Pay attention!” But for very different reasons and motives. Not to dodge and duck metaphorical or actual blows from a frustrated, impatient father. No; the new motive is at once more urgent and holy. The universe isn’t frustrated with me. More, it’s incredulous: How in heaven’s name did this mortal doofwad ever get the idea that he has time? How and why does he continue to construct demonic fill-in-the-blank sentences like “When I (effect some ideal state of affairs) then I will (give my complete attention to what really matters).”
My teacher once said to me, “In heaven, there are only two relevant questions — where am I, and what time is it. And, there are only two correct answers: I’m here, and it’s now.”
I remember sitting in that class room, smiling at the image of me rummaging a glove box for a highway map, wrestling it open and finding only block letters saying “Here.” Or asking a passerby, “What time is it?” And the answer would be, “Now o’clock. You can set your watch by it.”
The mystics call this perspective The Eternal Now. It’s an idea inviting us to (what I call) Radical Presence. I said it this way once in a song:
We live as if we’re gonna live forever
The rabbit sleeps as life goes plodding by
There’s what there is and then no more
The door stays open twenty-four
Hours less than this time yesterday
At age 6, it was important to turn my attention away from Eternity so I could remember to put on pants, tie my shoes and flush the toilet. Now, a few months away from 56, I find a renewed urgency to remember eternity once again. I find myself rocking in this paradoxical lullaby: Very little that is important requires hurrying up, and … there is not one moment to waste. I’m here. And it’s now.
The next time you find yourself killing time, ask yourself: Isn’t it more likely that time is killing you?
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.