204: Pay Attention

204: Pay Attention

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A couple months ago, I was driving by my neighbor’s house and realized their garbage cans were still out by the end of their driveway. Not usually a big deal, but it had been four days since garbage pickup day.

As I looked closer, I also noticed there were drifts in their driveway from the wind and snow we’d had a couple days before. The driveway hadn’t been plowed, and there were no tire tracks going in or out.

That’s strange, I thought. You can’t see their home from mine because the line of sight is blocked by a building on my property, so I don’t see their house unless I am going to town. But they’re usually quick on taking their garbage cans in and getting plowed out from the snow.

What was going on?

Now, not only am I married to an officer, but I also listen to a lot of true crime podcasts and I also write some really dark fiction stuff. So when I see something like this, where does my brain go? Straight to OMG, what if my neighbors have been murdered in their home?

As it turned out, no—they were just on a week long vacation out of state and had forgotten to mention it. After getting a belly laugh from my hey, you’re not dead, are you? Facebook message, they thanked me for checking up on them.

It’s a funny story, right? And it all turned out okay.

But here’s one that’s not so funny.

A couple months ago, someone died while working out at a local gym in town. My friend showed up at the gym and they wouldn’t let her inside because of a “medical emergency”. As the story goes, the gym member basically laid down to do a sit-up and never got back up.

But that’s not the disturbing part of the story. What’s disturbing is that when they reviewed the security cameras, they determined the person had laid there for almost 45 minutes dead before anyone noticed anything was wrong.

Now, I understand being in the zone when you’re working out. But no one noticed an individual laying down, not moving, for 45 minutes?

It’s not just “situational awareness”

When we talk about paying attention to your surroundings, we often think about situational awareness. And when we talk about situational awareness, we often jump to “knowing when the bad guys are coming.” And while that’s certainly something to pay attention to, it’s not the be all end all.

Paying attention just means understanding what’s normal and noticing when something isn’t normal. And when you notice something isn’t normal, then you have to decide what you’re going to do about that.

Paying attention is as simple as knowing what’s normal with your animals.

Or knowing what milk or fruit or meat should smell like.

Or knowing how your family members normally talk or sit or how they carry themselves when they walk. It’s knowing how often they normally call or text.

It’s when you can tell that something is wrong with your significant other or your kid or your best friend because of how they say something. Maybe they are extra chatty and that’s not normal. Maybe they are super quiet and that’s not normal.

It’s noticing that your friend has posted some odd things online and you wonder if maybe something is going on with her behind the scenes, or if she’s dealing with some stuff you could help with.

So if something is off, what do you do?

Paying attention and noticing something is different or potentially wrong doesn’t mean you become a nosy and overdramatic beast. Handle things in a logical and sane way. In the case of “I wonder what’s up with my neighbors?” the first thing I did was creep Facebook. When was the last time they posted? Had they been on messenger recently? I noticed they had, then saw the pictures they were posting were recent and from out of state.

Well, that explains a lot. (And I sent them a funny, “hey, you’re not dead, are you?” message.)

But sometimes the issue isn’t that people overreact with drama, it’s they don’t say anything about what they notice. Why? We don’t want people to think we are overreacting or being stupid.

It’s so weird to me in a world where people have a platform and so many people say so many things, that when it comes to “gee, I wonder if something is wrong” or “I wonder if something is going on there”… we clam up.

I’ve had people ask me if it would be ridiculous for them to call the local police or sheriff’s department to do a welfare check on someone they haven’t been able to get ahold of for two weeks. I tell them if you knew the asinine things that people call the cops about, you would never second guess if it’s okay to call them to check on your out of town friend that you haven’t heard from in two weeks who you normally talk to every other day.

A podcaster I listen to recently mentioned that she sometimes will wake up in the night and feel like something is off. Because of that she’s been known to call family members to ask them if everything is okay. The way she sees it, she’d rather make the phone call and say something and have people think she’s stupid than not make the phone call and have something really be wrong.

Imagine if something had been wrong with my neighbors and we didn’t find out until a week later, but I’d “wondered about it” days before that?

What kinds of things do you notice?

My husband notices the smallest details, like tire tracks in our driveway that are different from what should normally be there. I would be more apt to be the person who notices the energy is “off” in a room or someone is acting weird.

We all notice different things when we pay attention to what’s going on around us.

Distinguish what’s normal and abnormal so you can deal with it 

If you don’t know what normal is, you don’t know when it’s not. Pay attention so you can distinguish between the two. Only after you determine something has changed—or hasn’t, and should—can you determine how to deal with it.

Paying attention means you care

When someone comes home, do you act more like a dog or a cat? In my experience, a dog looks up, runs to the door, greets you, and is so excited to see you. A cat barely looks up, and goes back to what they’re doing.

Do you pay attention to the people and things around you?

Pay attention to when people don’t post, don’t talk, or don’t show up.

We live in a very noisy world where people are constantly talking, posting, sharing pictures, etc. And because it’s so noisy, it’s sometimes hard to even realize that one little tidbit of that conversation has fallen away.

We’re often stuck in our own lives, existing in our own little countries of isolation with our heads down in our phones or staring at our screens. Sometimes we can even be staring straight ahead but not really seeing anything because our head is 13 different places. How can we live in an age where we’re so connected and yet there is so much that we don’t notice about each other?

It’s crazy to me that we can see people’s posts and talk to people online everyday, and for some reason they’re somehow at arms length because it’s digital and through a screen. We know that we will never even meet some of these people in real life, and yet we interact with them every single day.

What happens when someone is no longer there? When their posts are gone and their conversations cease? There have been a few deaths in the last couple years of people I’ve interacted with many times online but never met in real life. And it’s always so strange to me that we were so much a part of each other’s daily lives and yet… did we really pay attention to what’s going on with them? And if we saw something that was off… did we say anything? Or did we just wait for the next post?

What are you paying attention to?

What are we paying attention to? What do we actually see? And what just becomes part of the background? And how do we change that?

It’s interesting how the phrase is pay attention because pay insinuates something like a currency; something we use like money. If you’re paying attention to ALL THE THINGS HAPPENING OUT THERE IN THE WORLD, what are you missing that’s right under your nose? Right in your house?

I know people who are so jacked up about and hyper-focused on what’s going on in the world any given day, and they’ve got zero grasp on what’s happening with their own kids and spouse. Seems to me like that’s a misuse of a very important currency.

We need to start paying attention to people around us. Not in the sense that you’re worried that the person is a bad guy who will follow you home and do something horrible to you, but more in the sense that we’re all human beings and we’ve all got stuff going on. And maybe if we could pay attention to each other just a little bit more, maybe we could help people not feel so alone. We could help people through the stuff they’re dealing with because we’d actually notice it’s happening.

Pay attention to what’s going on in your family, with your friends, or with other people you know.

Notice things.

Pay attention.

And don’t be afraid to say something.

— Amy Dingmann, 4-19-22


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