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The Attention Of Interest

Attention naturally follows interest. It can, however, be held by will
to the unappealing, with the usual result of transforming it into a
thing of interest.

One of the laws of the mind we have already stressed is that what we
attend to largely determines what we are, or shall be. The interests
which secure our consideration may be the passive result of emotional
life, the things which naturally appeal, which give us sensations that
the mind normally heeds; or they may be the active result of our will
which has forced application upon the things which reason advised as
worth acquiring.

We found that the beginning of health of mind consists in the directing
of thought toward the health-bringing attitude. We have seen how quickly
the normal mind can be diverted from the undesirable by a new or
stronger emotional stimulus. We found that the sole appeal to attention
in the baby-life is through the emotions, and that it is natural
throughout life for the mind to heed and follow the interesting; which
is only another way of saying that thinking follows where emotion leads,
unless volition steps in to prevent. The supreme test of the will's
power is its ability to hold the train of thought in the line that
reason directs, when feeling would draw it elsewhere. This ability marks
the man who does big things; while the inability to ever turn attention
away from the interests proposed by feeling assures weakness.

Some of the most charming people we shall ever know are those
temperamental children of happiness whose interests are naturally
wholesome and externalized, whose natures are spontaneous and joyous,
and who live as they feel, seemingly never knowing the stress of forced
concentration. With them attention follows feeling, feeling is sweet and
true, and volition simply carries out what feeling dictates. And life
may not be complicated.

But there is another class whose attention also follows in the ways of
least resistance; and life for them is a wallowing in the morbid and
unwholesome. In them feeling is perverted, they seem to see life
habitually through dark glasses; they passively attend to the sad, the
distressing, sometimes the gruesome and the horrible with a sort of
pallid joy in their own discolored images. The first group puts joy in
all they see, because they are brimming full of joy themselves. These
others find only the unwholesome in life because their minds are
storehouses of it. We say that each type has projected himself, that is,
has thrust himself out into the external world, and is standing back,
looking at his own nature and calling that the universe.

But neither of these two groups can long withstand the stress of a world
they only feel and have never attempted to comprehend. The irresponsibly
happy ones are too often crushed and broken when life proves to bring
loss and failure and disappointment; the morbid probably will cease some
day to enjoy their melancholic moods, and be unable to find their way
out of them. If both had learned to control attention, they might have
been saved. The happy, care-free child of the light is at desperate loss
when the sun he loves is obscured, if he has not learned to look upon
the far side of the clouds to find that there they glow golden with the
rays temporarily shut from him. Because clouds were not interesting to
him he never attended to them--and now he cannot. If the pessimistic,
morbid one had looked away from the shadow to the sun it hid he, too, in
the end might have seen with sane eyes and lived so wholesomely as to
find all the good there was in life. Willed attention, rather than
spineless feeling distractibility, might have saved him.

When thinking can be forced to follow where trained reason directs, and
can be kept in that direction, the greatest problem of physical and
nervous well being is solved. To the nurse there is no other principle
of psychology so important. But no child ever had his attention
diverted by reasoning alone. The object at which you wish him to look
must be made more impelling than the one he already sees, or he must
want much to please you, else he only with his eyes will follow your
command while his mind returns to his real interest; and the second you
cease to command that eye service, he looks back to the thing that was
holding him before. The beginning of all education is in arousing a
want to know; in turning desire in the direction of knowledge.

I am an undisciplined child and I want only candy for my lunch. It is
not good for me. Milk is what I should have. I don't want it. You may
deprive me of the candy and force me to drink the milk, and I can do
nothing but submit. But I rebel within, and I am only more convinced
that I "hate" it and want candy, and that you are my natural enemy
because you force the one upon me and deprive me of the other. If I were
insane and so, of course, could not be reasoned with, this might be
inevitable. But it would be unfortunate. In that case, if possible, do
not let me see the candy; let only the food it is best for me to have be
put before me, and perhaps eventually I shall come to want the more
wholesome thing--for it is better than the hunger.

But as it happens I am a perfectly normal person, only I am sick. I am
tired of bed, and want to sit up--and it does seem that I should have my
desire. The nurse, wise in her knowledge of sick "grown-ups," who are,
after all, very like children, will find a way to divert my mind from
the immediate "I want" to something which I also can be led to want. I
may agree that I want more the better feeling an hour from now. Perhaps
her humorous picture of the effects of too early freedom on my
condition, or of my body's urgent demand for rest, regardless of my
mind's wish; perhaps only a joke which diverts me; perchance the
"take-for-granted you want to help us out" air; mayhap the story to be
read or told; or simply the poise and quiet assurance of the nurse who
never questions my reasonableness and acquiescence; perhaps her
confidence that this will serve as a means to the end I covet--will
result in my gladly taking her advice, and my perfect willingness to
wait for new orders, while I indulge in beautiful plans I shall carry
out when they finally arrive.

In other words, with the sick as with children, attention naturally
follows interest. And the good nurse realizes that it is not wise to
force co-operation when she can secure it by diverting her patient's
thoughts to another interest than the one now holding him. Very often,
merely by chatting quietly about something she has learned has an
appeal, she can make the patient forget his weariness and boredom, or
his resistance to details of treatment. The very milk he is refusing to
drink may be down before he realizes it. But right here lies a hidden
reef which may cause wreckage in the future. It is good therapy to
divert attention by appealing to another interest when the patient is
too sick or too stubborn or not clear enough mentally to be reasoned
with. But if this becomes a principle, and his reason and active
co-operation are never secured to make him choose the way of health for
himself, the hour he is out of the nurse's hands he reverts to the
things that now happen to appeal to him. Then unless some wise friend is
near to continue her method of making the reasonable interesting, the
advice of reason can "go to smash."

There has been a very constant illustration throughout the past of the
unwisdom of relying upon diverted attention alone as an effective
therapeutic agent. We hope this will not illustrate our point so clearly
in the future. The drunkard, who is just recovering from a big spree,
and feels sick and disgusted with himself, and sore and ashamed, is
appealed to in glowing terms of the wellness and strength and buoyancy
of the man who never drinks. He has no "mornings after." The Lord is
just waiting to save this dejected victim of alcohol from his hateful
enemy who has made him what he is at this hour, and will forgive all his
sottishness, his sins. He will be respected; he can command the love of
his family again. He will no longer be a slave, but a free man. Right
now, respect of the world and love of family and friends, and cleanness,
and the forgiveness of a good God are infinitely more interesting than
this splitting headache, this horrible sick feeling. And attention may
be very readily diverted. This promised new life is more attractive than
the present. It is easy to keep attention there. And he reforms. He
swears off "for keeps." He is a happy man, a free man. For a few days or
weeks, perhaps even longer, he glories in his new self-respect. It is a
strange and enticing sensation. Then one day something goes wrong. He
loses some money, or he is awfully tired, or the wife and children bore
him, and all of a sudden the one greatest interest in the world is a
drink. And because his thinking can always be led by his feeling;
because he has never learned to force it to go elsewhere, he has his
drink. Appealing to his emotions did not and cannot save him unless that
appeal is followed at the right moment by awakened reason, which will
look at the whole proposition when the mind is at its normal best, and
choose to follow where rational feeling directs. Nor will reason save
unless volition comes to its support and strongly backs it up and
enforces what it advises.

Next: The Attention Of Reason And Will

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