Are you paying attention?

Shelley Lieber • 4 min read

It’s time we start paying attention if we truly want to change and heal the world.

Are you paying attention?

Not too long ago I was diligently writing or editing something when I reached that point where I knew it was time to stand up, stretch, make fresh coffee, and refill my water glass.

So I did—precisely in that order. I stood up, did my short stretching routine, went to the kitchen, put fresh water up to boil, carefully measured two scoops of ground coffee in the French press, and looked around for my water glass to refill.

It wasn’t in the sink. I returned to my desk; it wasn’t there. I have a small apartment and I looked everywhere but my glass was nowhere to be found.

I shrugged. It would turn up, and I have more glasses. I heard the beep of the electric kettle letting me know my water was at 200 degrees, the perfect temperature for brewing coffee in a French press.

I lifted the kettle and started to pour the water when I burst out laughing.

It was not the French press that held my carefully placed coffee grounds… it was my empty water glass.

I snapped a photo on my phone and sent it to my daughter because as my mini-me, she would understand perfectly how this happened. I wrote a short blurb about the situation and captioned the photo: “I can only share this with you.”

But here I am now sharing it publicly. Why?

To be honest, this is not an uncommon occurrence for me. Although I know everyone is absent-minded at times, I’m going to reveal another embarrassing personal tidbit. Joe had a name for this kind of incident: he called it a “Shelley.”

It was a fond teasing, usually followed by the story of how his father would walk around looking for his glasses that were on top of his head. Still, whenever one of us did something because we weren’t “in the moment” or “present,” he said we did a Shelley.

I suppose it might be true that it happens to me more often than to most.

I’ve usually credited these momentary lapses of attention to the fact that I’m thinking about something more important, e.g., the piece I was working on when I took that coffee-stretch-and-water break.

But my most recent “Shelley” got me thinking about other possible (and more serious) consequences of not being mindful or paying closer attention to what we do and say.

Are you ready? The big shift in subject matter is coming next.

Systemic racism is one result of not paying attention to the ideas and belief systems we’ve absorbed over the years. “Innocent” references we throw out in speech every day reflect those beliefs, whether we consciously realize it or not. We also have systemic sexism and a host of other outdated, ingrained beliefs about how society should be structured that do not serve us or society at all.

We’re very good at spotting it in other people. But in ourselves? Not so much.

I was trained early on to recognize these references. One of my duties as a textbook editor in the 1970s was to keep an eye out for possible sexist or racist overtones in the material we produced. That meant no illustrations of men “failing” in the kitchen and an equal number of women portrayed in the workplace as men. Saying no to illustrations of women in aprons; yes to women in business attire or with a briefcase. We counted the number of ethnic names used in the text. There was a formula for how many Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, and Asian names and illustrations were used.

I did this for eight years and it’s a habit I saw no reason to break.

And so when I would see memes on Facebook that reflected cultural biases of sexism or racism, often presented as “jokes,” I’d comment on the underlying negative projections. I usually got called out for having no sense of humor and rarely received any support. So I decided that a better way to express my thoughts on what I believe to be dangerous suggestions that perpetuate biases would be for me to address it in my writing.

A few months back, I wrote a blog post titled I’m Ashamed and discussed the rise of fat-shaming in the media, which of course only reflects what exists in the current society. I admitted to having done so quietly in my past, something I regretted and for which I now feel shame.

Today I’m admitting I’m also guilty of letting outdated imagery and beliefs about women, men, and racial groups color my thinking at times. Sometimes without much thought, but sometimes with full knowledge that my reaction is skewed by old, unfounded biases.

If you deny this about yourself, you’re either in la-la land or were raised by wolves on some remote island off the Alaskan coast. It’s impossible to have grown up in this society without some bias.

I don’t say this to be critical and judge myself or you. I say it because it needs to be brought out in the open, examined, and eliminated.

Here’s another shocker: If you post negative comments or memes about those who don’t or won’t get vaccinated for Covid, you may as well tag me. Yes, the Covidiot you just called out and suggested was a Republican, Trump-supporting, anti-democracy, donut-consuming, conspiracy-theorist is me—although I am none of those things other than I have not and will not take the Covid vaccine.

My point here is not to discuss this hot-button issue. It’s to point out that words hurt and have powerful and serious consequences. That grouping people, using labels, and generally being “against” something rather than “for” what you believe is harmful and often erroneous.

Stereotypes are dangerous. Labeling groups of people and assigning attributes to them as a whole is what got us into this mess of Us vs Them in the first place.

I don’t think enough attention is paid to what we think and say. What jokes we laugh at. What stereotypes we perpetuate. What motivates us to condemn someone else for what they think or do.

I think it’s time we start paying attention if we truly want to change and heal the world.

Change begins with me. Attention to detail, not lack of it, is the new Shelley. And right now I'm laser-focused on spreading love, light, and healing.

That's what I want associated with my name. Joe would approve the change.

Image: Man Reading in Diner ©Gemignani. Purchase prints here.

Text ©Shelley Lieber

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