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The Value of Paying Attention

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Recently, a lot of people have been feeling overwhelmed by the coronavirus-dominated news. My personal news intake has jumped from almost nothing to reading at LEAST 30 minutes of news a day - not only because I have to do it for my internship but because I find it really interesting too. There constantly seems to be drama unfolding across the globe - some ‘threads’ and ‘topics’ I follow almost as if I was following a new season of The Office on Netflix (I am STILL holding out that they might have a reunion season/episode…) 

As Singaporeans, we are constantly bombarded by information. (Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash)

Consuming so much news everyday has led me to realise the pertinent value of paying attention. I mean this in two ways: Firstly, paying attention IS a value. It’s a currency we constantly spend. We pay attention to lots of things throughout our day, often without giving it a second thought: our instagram feeds, our to-do lists, what’s for dinner … paying attention is an investment we make continuously; though we often do so without first considering WHERE we are investing it. We could be sitting at the dinner table with our family, scrolling on our phone. Where is our attention being ‘paid’ to then? What else could I have done with the one hour I was scrolling on instagram? Though these activities are often mindless and ‘free’, we don’t realise we are ’spending’ our valuable attention. I realised its value when I noticed that investing it in keeping up with current affairs, for me at least, has been a worthwhile investment. It has opened my eyes to the world in a new way - allowed me to initiate and embark on a much wider range of topics in conversation, and grown my heart for different issues and people groups. And realising this - that paying attention - has been an investment - made me reflect on the other things I pay my attention to. What kind of investments are those? If I had to make an initial deposit WITH REAL CASH, would I still pay them? $5 to scroll twitter? $10 to stream Netflix? It helped me put in perspective the value of our attention. 

Secondly, and more importantly, I’ve come to see how when I am paying attention, I derive a clarity of issues which enables me to respond in a deeper, more robust and meaningful way. For my internship, the news I’ve been following mainly revolves around the Middle East. I never realised there were so many things constantly happening in the Middle East! It seems such a far removed land from our tiny island; honestly, it’s a region I don’t think about often. I’ve come to see and appreciate the intricate complexity of social issues. Many times, problems in a community or city which make the news are still developing. As I follow up on particular headlines and see the issue emerge and evolve, I have noticed that it can be difficult to understand an issue from just one news article. One news article doesn’t cover all the perspectives. Sometimes one news article doesn’t even cover all the facts! 

When I first read about the riots in Iran’s prisons, I was surprised. The first article I came across talked about how poor prison conditions had led to a riot. I felt shocked at the prison conditions that I had read about, but later, another article expressed that it was fears of the coronavirus that had led to the riot. And those fears began to spread throughout that prison and to other prisons in the region. The problem was really much bigger than prisons in Iran as leaders across the globe started contemplating releasing prisoners because of COVID-19. Many countries had different responses, and there was an outcry over the choice of prisoners that were released in some places, such as Turkey, where 'political prisoners' were still being detained - journalists, rights activists… it became increasingly clear that what I had initially assumed to be a problem with prisons in Iran was a much, much larger issue with different aspects being shoved into the spotlight because of the coronavirus. I realised the importance of not having a ‘knee-jerk reaction’  to the news, allowing it to inform and shape my opinion while also ensuring enough attention is paid to the issue to understand its nuances.

All of this gave me A LOT of food for thought, as I wondered more about prison conditions, the purpose of prison, and how coronavirus is leaving no corner of society unscathed. The coronavirus has also compounded the problems faced by the increased number of recently released prisoners (as countries including the US take steps to reduce risks of an outbreak in prisons by releasing certain prisoners earlier/on parole) as it has made their already difficult reintegration into society even more arduous. Employment is harder to find. With the worldwide lockdowns, released prisoners effectively go from being locked in one place to being locked in another.

(Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash)

Is there anything I can do about the prisons? Practically, probably not. However, following this issue has taught me how complicated world problems are, and how solutions (like rushing to release more prisoners) can sometimes lead to new unprecedented problems (for the recently released prisoners). Regarding practical responses though, I feel like a clear example where paying attention to an issue has proven key would be with the news regarding the recent outbreaks in dormitories. In the span of just 16 days after the first of April, our island nation’s covid case count had jumped from 1,000 to 4,427 - 60% of which were migrant workers living in dorms. It was reported that the primary cause of this spike was the poor living conditions migrant workers face - sleeping in bunk beds with sometimes hundreds of them sharing communal toilets and showering facilities. 

As a result, many rushed to give an opinion and/or critique how the government should have done better. Responses ranged from being xenophobic, to extremely harsh on the authourities. However, how many had actually been paying attention to the migrant community before the outbreak in the dormitories? How many know the efforts the government has made, the improvements, or the prejudice that continues to run rampant in our nation? How many actually understood their living conditions or the difficulties they face simply in obtaining warm, nutritious meals? Many organisations, like TWC2, have spent years and years working with the migrant community. However this relatively small group of committed individuals have perpetually needed more support and volunteers to address the sizable needs of the community. If more of us pay attention to issues like these around us, more people can be mobilized for change! Understanding is needed for real change to happen - and both take time. 

Often, the issues that make the news are simply the tip of the iceberg. And learning this has made me so much more aware of the depth and complexity of social problems, allowing me to intentionally do research, developing an opinion which allows for more appropriate action! 

This is something I hope to continue to learn and grow in! Some steps I have decided to take (and which might be helpful for you too!) are:

  1. Setting aside 15 minutes in the morning to read the news from a reputable source

  2. Choose a specific thread or topic which strikes me 

  3. Follow up on it by researching it over the course of the week

  4. Journaling my perspective and convictions

  5. Having conversations with those around me about the things I’m learning!

During this period of quarantine, I hope to grow in mindfulness - and to keep my brain active. Not just paying more attention to the world, but to the people around me - to react with kindness and deeper appreciation. :) Applying this value of paying attention to our everyday lives is key, especially to grow in empathy and strengthen our relationships. From noticing and greeting the Uncle who sweeps the void deck downstairs (Whom my family affectionately yells “Selemat Pagi!! (good morning in Malay)” to whenever we see him) to striking up a conversation with my downstairs neighbour about her yoga classes - paying attention to those around me throughout my day has opened my eyes in new ways. And it has given me opportunities to build on these relationships; helping where I can, and investing in my community. 

How many of us know the names of our next-door neighbours?

(Photo by Andrea Ang on Unsplash)

Paying attention isn’t easy in our self-focused, fast paced lifestyles, but I feel like it is shaping who I am, what I care about and the way I interact with others - something which is overall, very worth it! Our attention is valuable and precious - let us invest it wisely!!! 

(Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash) 

The Value of Paying Attention is part 1 of a series of 6 articles. They are perspectives written by different team members of Solve n+1 on how we can do good, better.

Many of Solve’s projects are a fruit of the way we understand these issues. If you would like to find out more about the projects and issues we deal with, feel free to contact us. Stay in touch with our latest projects and blog posts by following us on Facebook and Instagram :)

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