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Axioms of being human. 1: Man is an attention-seeking animal

Why should this be the first entry in “Philosophers’ Post”? Truth is, I do not really know, however I practise not-knowing either where my mind will start or where it will lead me. Later, perhaps, I will understand… that is the faith of the creative life.

Mind you? I do have a clue. The subject of attention-seeking leads directly to the subjects of suppression and oppression, (if those two are to be distinguished. ) In Australia we speak of the tall-poppy syndrome, the tendency to suppress anyone who attempts to stand out from the crowd, to draw attention to themselves. “Who does she think she is?” and “Stop showing off!” are mantras that go with this syndrome.

At back of this syndrome lies the obvious truth that we are born to seek attention. Survival is sometimes the main goal, as when a baby cries out for food. But the need for attention goes way beyond. “Look, Mummy! Look what I can do now!” as she jumps through a hoop. From the earliest age, our exultation at the sense of new achievement rests in showing it. A gentler way is to describe this as the desire to share: in later life this can take subtler and more mature forms.

When we are young, the exultation in new achievement is shared by parent and child, alike. The parent wants the child to learn to walk and shares in he pride in that achievement, but, as time goes on, that changes. The change is supported even by professional medical and psychiatric practice. Parents are taught to ignore children on the ground that they are merely attention-seeking, as if attention-seeking is some kind of disease. Perhaps the attention here should be on th word ‘merely’ with its implication that the child is seeking attention for no good reason. This leaves unanswered two questions: one, the question who is to judge what constitutes good reason and two, whether there might be a fundamental need for attention for no reason other than that the need has not been satisfied. Might it not be sufficient that attention is needed as an end in itself?

I want to tell a story: it relates to a sermon I heard once at a service in a Unitarian Meeting Place in Adelaide. The Pastor was describing a visit to an elderly citizens’ village where she was to give a talk. Before beginning her talk, she was warned by the staff that one of the elderly clients was likely to be disruptive. “But” they said, “Just ignore her! She is only attention-seeking”.

Surely enough, as the Pastor’s talk proceeded, an old lady, sitting in a wheel-chair in the aisle, began to cry out, in a loud voice: “Doesn’t anyone know I’m here?” And again, and again: “doesn’t anyone know that I am here?” until the attendants came and quietly wheeled her out.

I cannot prove what I am about to write: I was not there. But a spirit inside me convicted me that I knew the meaning of that poor creature’s cry and that that cry had not been heard. The bad spell of the diagnosis of “attention-seeking”. obscured understanding Yes, she was crying out for attention, but her cry had not been understood. What she was trying to say was something like this: “Why aren’t my daughter, or my son, or my husband here to take me home from this dreadful place? Has no-one told
them that I am here? Doesn’t anyone know that I am here?”

Whether my interpretation is correct, is not to the point. The case is perfectly credible and I could descr8ibe other similar cases in which I have witnessed and experienced the evils of the spell of diagnosis. Notice that, as babies, our parents will suffer endless agony trying to understand our cries: but amongst the elderly this may not be so much the case. At the point where we become a nuisance to those whose responsibility is to care for us, the diagnosis is at least a convenience and perhaps a relief.

There is no conclusion to these remarks, except to enjoin sensitivity and awareness. There are times when any aspect of human desire and need may have to be managed. But let not the rules of management blind us! We will manage better.