If there has been a common experience of this current age of pandemic, it is the unsettling feeling of dislocation — temporal, sensory, social. It's a troubling human problem that appears to manifest in the young especially, and most acutely in teenagers and young adults who are in the most important stage of their lives for developing, understanding and exploring those very parts of life.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey showed that during the pandemic, some 63% of 18- to-24-year olds have experienced anxiety or depression, with roughly a quarter also contemplating suicide.
One public health expert, Boston University's Dr. Sarah Lipson, was involved in a separate survey revealing that the pandemic has adversely affected the mental health of 80% of college students.
"For the people between the ages of 21 and 25, this is a time of expansion in their life, with new connections and new things," Lipson said. "That is all being halted. I think this is a hard time for parts of life to stand still."
I thought of these worrisome things as I considered a new film, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, that features two teenagers caught in what they call a "temporal anomaly," a time loop that has them repeating the same day. The film, a kind of Groundhog Day for the young adult audience, involves characters who seek the mystery at the root of their temporal trap, a mystery that will turn out to be tied up not only with our response to loss and grief, but also with our capacity for wonder and generosity toward others.
For them, time is literally broken. The future is canceled.
Yet one of the lessons of the film is that there are mysteries all around us, and the deeper mysteries are about the tiny, perfect things in our midst: the moments of connection with others, with nature, and with the possibility of friendship and love.
There is a difference, of course, between our metaphorical experience of time's suspension during the pandemic and the film's literal experience of repetition. But there are lessons we can draw from the deprivation the film's characters experience as they are disconnected from the future. The characters realize that, in the single day afforded them, they are surrounded by many small wonders, tiny perfect things, that they seek to map out so as to appreciate more fully.
They develop habits of what the early 20th century French philosopher, Simone Weil, calls attention. Even in the midst of what might seem a horrifying predicament, they become receptive to persons and events that draw them out of themselves.
"Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object," Weil writes.
It promises the possibility of "regaining a clear view," of "seeing things as we were meant to see them — as things apart from ourselves."
A precocious child who learned ancient Greek at 12 and later, after reading the Bhagavad Gita, learned Sanskrit, Weil was one of the most unusual of early 20th century intellectuals. A liberal activist, she had a mystical experience in the Assisi Church where Saint Francis experienced his own conversion. For most of her short adult life (she died at 34), she existed on the cusp of the Catholic Church.
For Weil, whom Albert Camus called "the only great spirit of our times," attention enables us to glimpse, in and through ordinary encounters with nature and other persons, layers of reality that we otherwise would miss.
Attention involves the capacity to wait in silence, a type of patience that allows us to be affected by what is outside us. Weil describes a wide range of examples of objects of attention: a geometrical problem, an afflicted friend, or God.
Given our addiction to flittering screens, on which we move rapidly from one image, one bit of information or Twitter post to another, we might be said to suffer from a crisis of inattention.
Science Daily reports on a recent study by an international team of scientists that compares the obsession of some social media users to the pursuit of reactions of approval. "Likes" are akin to the "principles that lead non-human animals, such as rats, to maximize their food rewards in a Skinner Box," it concludes.
The seeking of "positive online social feedback" often eclipses the desire not just for "direct social interaction" but "even basic needs like eating and drinking," the article states.
And we are all acutely aware that the default reaction on Twitter is not receptivity to the opinions of others but the peremptory judgment that anyone who disagrees with us is both fatuous and malevolent.
Weil thinks that attention also can correct our tendency to locate ourselves, our perceptions and our desires at the center of the universe. Attention can draw us out of ourselves to the recognition that there are other centers, other persons, whose lives are independent of ours, however much different lives might overlap.
In what might seem a paradox, she urges us "to empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers." This involves a generous acknowledgment of the reality and freedom of others. She says it is a form of love.
In a moment of clarity toward the end of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, one character confesses that he thought he was in a certain kind of story, with himself as the hero. But he realizes it wasn't primarily his story at all. It was someone else's and he was playing a subordinate role. What's instructive is that the realization here is coupled not with envy or remorse but with wonder and gratitude. That's an insight, coupled with dispositions, worthy of Weil's philosophy.
The obstacles to the practice of and even the recognition of the need for attention are many. They may be greatest for young adults who have grown up with screens and social media as indispensable means of engagement and interaction and who have found themselves almost suspended in time during this crucial stage of their development. That suspension and the resort many of us — and especially the young — take in our screens is proving toxic.
Perhaps we need a cultural revolution that would take our physiological and ethical need for attention seriously. In a recent New York Times essay, Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, urges us to begin to see "attention" as "a resource" — as indispensable a resource as other basic natural resources.
"[A] person has only so much of it," he writes. "And yet we've auctioned off more and more of it ... In the process, we've sacrificed silence... And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think. What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?"
Such a move would require us to take notice not just of the threats to the environment, our natural ecology, but also to the practices that undermine the ethical conditions of human flourishing, our human ecology.
Perhaps there is an opportunity here to broaden young people's awareness of the whole world beyond themselves, to care for the internal and communal ecology. They certainly recognize the devastation in their own lives. Young people today are seeing their lives — their dreams, aspirations and expectations — stymied in what has come to seem like broken time.
For too many, this suspension of life saw a drawing inward enabled by technology that has only exacerbated their pain. But in understanding the nature of our attention, where we place it and how we develop it, they can grow even from painful isolation into more complete and outward-facing adults.