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, w
ich 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.