There’s an old joke about a guy who lives next to a train track all his life. Every night the B&O comes through at about 2 AM, so loud and close that the floor boards rattle in the guy’s house. Of course, he sleeps through it. Then one night the train breaks down five miles up the track. 2 AM comes and there is no train, only silence. The guy wakes up with a start crying, “What the heck was that?”
We have a great capacity for tuning out the background noise in our lives. On one hand, it’s a crucial skill in a world where we are constantly bombarded with infotainment from an ever-widening range of media. If we couldn’t filter through it, everything would be a cacophony of sights and sounds. It’s a skill that is sometimes required even in the relative solitude of our own homes. Ask anyone who has ever tried to concentrate while having their attention demanded by a small child, for example.
On the other hand, we can get too good at it. When I was much younger and living in Boston, I used to walk to work down Summer Street. Every morning the sidewalks were lined with the homeless, sleeping near the subway gratings for warmth. Of course it was disturbing, but after a while it became normal, part of the daily routine. Now consider that this section of town was the heart of the financial district. Imagine how many high-salaried financial executives (of which I was not one) were stepping over their economic opposites each morning. I wonder what they were thinking as they did so. I don’t mean to tar everyone with the same brush, but the lives of the have-nots must have been incomprehensible to many of the haves who were about to rise twenty, thirty, or forty floors above it. It felt a lot more real to someone like me, who often felt one paltry paycheck away from living there myself.
I admit that is a dramatic example, but it is usually the dramatic that people find memorable. Yet even drama can seem mundane with enough repetition. Even personal pain and suffering can be tuned out with enough practice, allowing us to ignore the symptoms and defer dealing with the cause.
What kind of balance do you have between tuning in and tuning out the world? How much are you taking in, and how much are you filtering out? For each of us, there’s a reason we are where we are, but we have to be aware of where we are before we can begin to understand what that reason is. We can learn only if we’re paying attention.