A dialogue from the film Lady Bird:
Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Lady Bird: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Lady Lady Bird: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?1
Does anyone else feel like their ability to pay attention is getting worse? I feel like I am getting progressively more addicted to my phone and less able to pay attention to others, to the world around me, and even my own thoughts and feelings. A recent example: I opened up the Word document to start writing this blog, typed half of the first sentence, and I’m only now finishing out the paragraph a day and a half later. In the United States, office employees can focus on a single task for three minutes, while teenagers can only focus on a single task for 65 seconds before switching to something else.2
And while our diminishing attention spans are, of course, detrimental to things like work, school and productivity, even more concerning is the effect of our diminishing attention on the art of loving. No one can wholeheartedly love without paying attention to that which they love, and active attention is a direct and tangible way someone can show love for another. Love requires connection, and connection requires attention. If human beings are losing their ability to pay attention, we could easily be losing our capacity for compassion, empathy and love. Psychologist Eric Fromm, in his book, The Art of Loving, writes: “To be active in thought, feeling, with one’s eyes and ears, throughout the day, to avoid inner laziness, be it in the form of being receptive, hoarding, or plain wasting one’s time, is an indispensable condition for the practice of the art of loving.”3
With the pervasiveness of screentime, this state of active attention throughout the day seems all too rare.
This attention crisis has become a connection crisis, and it is affecting adults and youth alike, though it is especially concerning for young people whose brains are still developing. Educators, parents and any adults working with children often feel helpless in this fight against the power of screens over the attention of young people and for good reason. It can feel like a losing battle in which there is often a tendency to blame the younger generations for their own social media addictions. I think this is a mistake. Johann Hari, author of the book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again emphasizes that it’s not actually our fault that our ability to pay attention is declining. It has been intentionally stolen—hacked—by corporations seeking to profit off of us by gathering as much information about us as possible and selling those details about us to advertisers. The algorithms are designed to steal our attention, aiming to keep each user on the app for as long as possible. One of Hari’s points that I appreciate is that it should not be up to individuals to bear responsibility for the burden of fixing this problem. Instead of blaming youth for the problem, we should blame the corporations responsible, and we should offer compassion and understanding to ourselves and our young people as we work to save our collective ability to pay attention. We need a movement to change this issue. But it is still important for us to find ways to begin to heal our attention, and our ability to connect, as much as possible in the meantime. But how?
One of the most helpful methods I have found for improving my ability to listen and pay attention is the practice of improv. The importance of attentiveness in improvisation is undeniable. Every skilled improviser is also a skilled listener, and many improvisers attest that the most important thing in all of improv is listening. Without paying attention, without active listening, an endeavor in collaborative improvisation is doomed to mediocrity or worse. Improvisation is a collaborative act, and collaboration requires maximum communication between all those involved. The participants must share control of the scene and listening enables them to do that because “it’s impossible to pay attention and exert your will at the same time.”4 This relinquishing of control is as essential in love as it is in improv.
For years, I thought I was actually a pretty good listener. It wasn’t until I started getting really involved with improv–acting in troupes, taking classes, reading books, etc.–that I realized I was actually quite lacking in listening skills. It was through the art of improv that I became a better listener. I noticed that the skills I was learning in the theater were transferring into my personal life, relationships, my work, and my artistic endeavors. Now when I teach improv workshops, I structure the curriculum around applying the skills students learn in the improv classroom to living fulfilling, meaningful and positive lives.
In addition to the skills improv can teach in loving, the practice can also enhance one’s ability to love simply because it is a productive and fulfilling life activity. Erich Fromm argues that “the capacity to love demands a state of intensity, awakeness, enhanced vitality, which can only be the result of a productive and active orientation in many other spheres of life.”5 Whether it’s an improv class or something like a team sport, getting involved in activities that require paying attention or that encourage a flow state can be key in the path to healing our attention and that of the kids in our care.
Here are a few suggestions I have for getting involved with improv or incorporating improvisation in one’s life or the lives of young people.
If you’re a parent, grandparent, family member or guardian:
- See if there are any local improv classes available to kids in your area. For San Antonio, Magik Theatre and ComedySportz often have kid and family friendly offerings.
- Learn some improv games and play them with your kids! You could learn them online, from a book, or from a class.
- If your child’s school offers theater classes or extracurriculars, encourage them to try it out.
If you’re an educator:
- Look for ways to incorporate improv games, principles or practices into your curriculum.
- A key component of improv is imaginative play which requires full-attention and a flow state. Look for ways to incorporate imaginative play into your curriculum, especially for older students who may be out of “practice” with this.
- Gerwig, dir. Lady Bird. New York: A24, 2017.
- Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again, 10.
- Fromm, The Art of Loving, 118-119.
- Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, Improvisation at the Speed of Life, 102.
- Fromm, The Art of Loving, 119.
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. 1956. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.
Hari, Johann. Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How To Deeply Think Again. New York: Crown, 2022.
Gerwig, Greta, dir. Lady Bird. New York: A24, 2017.
Jagodowski, T.J., David Pasquesi, and Pam Victor. Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book. Chicago: Solo Romo, 2015.