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What gets your attention?

We all notice, don’t we? The thing that wasn’t there before. The thing that isn’t but was. The thing that’s different from one image to the next. Heck, that’s a puzzle I loved to do as a kid! Find all 10!

Yes, if we’re paying even the slightest attention, we notice when something has changed, been moved, seems out of place or is acting strangely. That’s why airport security admonishes us, “If you see something, say something.”

The funny thing is, we were made for this. It’s a survival mechanism. Really. Our perceptors (my new word: receptors for perception) are designed to alert us when something might be dangerous. Did you know that your body responds more quickly and forcefully to a critter crawling UP your arm than to the one crawling DOWN? Yep. One is a threat to the jugular; the other may only nibble a finger or toe. No biggie.

So, given this design, it’s not surprising to find that something moving quickly in our peripheral vision draws our attention. Someone behaving oddly gets our gaze. Someone dressed distinctively gives us pause. Honestly, when something or someone is different, it is hard to look away — even when it’s impolite to stare.

I find it at least a little bit comforting to realize that it isn’t just my socio-cultural bias at play here: a good bit of this responsiveness is programmed in. I’m designed to notice different and be wary, AND I’m drawn to seek the similar because it brings me comfort. It’s our instinctive nature to distinguish among and between in order to seek safety, security and well-being. It’s the same for all the animals in the animal kingdom. Draw close; protect your own.

Today’s world, though, is demanding more of me and of us. It is calling us away from the basic animal in our nature toward what is unique to our human nature. Yes, we have biases — ingrained, learned and polished over years of practice. There’s no disputing: We do prefer this to that. We understand this and not that. We accept this and reject that. But our humanity has been dealt a brilliant extra card: a mind that can notice its bias and reject it.

It’s a small thing really, to catch myself in the act of assigning a story to someone I see but don’t know, whether it’s on the TV, in the news or in the parking lot at my local shopping center. I have discovered that I can nip that thought right in the bud, though. In fact, I’ve taken to giving myself a little swat on the thigh to say, “Stop that right there, you!” That’s what you’d hear if your earbuds were listening in to my brain. I trust you aren’t, but the Big Someone Else surely is.

So, I figure I ought to listen, as Lincoln put it, to the angels of my better nature. They’re telling me to: lead with forgiveness, err on the side of generosity, assume the best in the other — until further notice. Lotta grace flowing down that stream. Grace I don’t always even give myself. Got a lot to learn.

Ironic, the difference between what gets your attention and what you give your attention to. Every animal in the kingdom comes pre-programmed for survival. We humans have the capacity to discern, decide and re-direct. Thought by ever-loving thought.

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