The Attention Obsession
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
The Millennial age has developed a growing obsession with attention. Overnight celebrities are taking over conversations as they are hurled into the limelight. An awkward comment on the daily news, or, a local nobody who somehow accrues 1000 likes on his Facebook post, are somehow gifted enormous recognition irrespective of their relative contribution. The gratification of validation has become such a focal point in modern-day society that it has been cemented at the top of the criterion necessary for decision-making. Integral decisions such as, what school to send my child to, or, what kind of person might be suitable to date, are largely affected by their social desirability. What will people say or think?
Interestingly, this need to conform to the latest trends, and, to be accepted by those around us, hasn’t developed from the stardom of those celebrities whose attention-seeking antics continue to envelope our society. Rather, it is the uptick in judgement between members of communities that has birthed this fad of conformity, and, with it the inherent need for validation.
Chassidic principles as well as contemporary literature, both touch on the issue of judgement and the fallibility of using validation as a means of measuring ones success. The need to be happy with ones self for who they are, and not, for who others think they should be, is discussed at length in both sources, and, will ultimately provide readers with a method with which one may overcome his or her folly, to pursue a purposeful and meaningful life.
The need for acknowledgement is becoming more important than doing the right thing. People are becoming increasingly obsessed with what others may think about them and less aware of what they need and want. With the continued advancement of technology, social media is consistently providing access to bigger audiences. What this means is, the reach of your everyday social-media consumer has increased exponentially, and may thus acquire more attention from users around the world. 50, 100 even 200+ individuals may validate one photo that is posted, gifting the person a false sense of endorsement that, while satisfying, lacks genuine care.
Where the gratification from attention provides a false sense of worth, judgement and isolation also endorse the need to conform. Together with the need for overbearing endorsement, the fear of being ostracized is preventing many from sharing their emotions, fears and desires. The fear of creating a faux pas by letting go of some overbearing issue in ones life, and thus degrading their social status, is forcing individuals to bottle up their emotions, leaving them feeling depressed and dejected.
While ones’ identity incorporates all of that which he or she may have experienced, the growth and development of their identity is being obstructed by our confirmative culture. The fear of ridicule and the desire for endorsement are contributing to a decline in character and a growing lack of self-confidence.
Chassidus touches on this notion of self-aggrandisement many times, both in reference to how such pursuits lead a person astray from G-d, as well as, the counter productivity such inclinations may have on the person and his identity.
In his discourse “Kuntres Umaayan” (Lit: Overcoming Folly), the Rebbe Rashab (Fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch) explains the different levels of folly and how they affect a person. In his description, The Rebbe Rashab details that, “when one conducts himself with, and derives pleasure from an emotional act alone without the guidance of intellect, he is similar to an animal.” In this way, the persons’ intuition becomes primitive and condensed, incapable of receiving stimulation from other outlets.
Modern literature also explains the biological consequence of attention and validation, why this has become such an addiction and how one can circumvent its influence. The study of neurotic activity explains that, each time a person is gifted attention; a small amount of dopamine is excreted in their brain. Dopamine is the pleasure-inducing drug that affects an instant sense of gratification. With this ‘hit’ coming at every instance of affirmation, people become addicted to its effect, seeking it at every opportunity.
To further endorse their ‘image’, people often partake in gossip, which at once boosts their value in conversation, whilst degrading the position of their fellow. This is discussed at length in Chassidus, where its affect is described as spiritual assassination (Hayom Yom – Daily Chassidic Insight). The Alter Rebbe explains that slander in any form, although sometimes true, can affect very real physical and spiritual consequences (Hayom Yom).
No matter the incident, true or not, the revelation of the ‘gossiper’ leaves a strong impact on the recipients and the subject. The information can readily cause the recipient to bypass dealings with the subject or even provoke pejorative feelings toward him or her.
While slander and validation are individual traits, they are interconnected in the way they provoke each other and the effect each has on individuals.
Both slander and the pursuit of validation engender feelings of Melancholy (Chapters 26 and 30 of Tanya). Melancholy can provoke feelings of sluggishness, preventing an individual from partaking in that which he believes in. Sluggishness of the heart (‘Timtum halev’) prevents active involvement in everyday activities as people become cold and distant. Uncompromising in their need to be the way they are. Be it service of G-d or his or her involvement in their hobby’s and interests , a person may struggle to obtain joy in any of his encounters. ‘Timtum Halev’ has become an epidemic in our society. Its influence is increasingly apparent in our generation and is engendered by this obsession with who and what other people think. The thirst for validation in our every day interactions, both through judgement and isolation, as well as through deviance and hostility continues to separate families, communities and friends.
Application of Chassidus
In his discourse ‘Overcoming Folly’, the Rebbe Rashab details that, “every creature in this world has a specific mission, i.e. its’ purpose”. This is primary in its everyday involvement in the corporeal world as well as its service of G-d. This purpose is fulfilled when creation “ascends to a level higher than its own”.
Chassidus explains, “when a vegetable is consumed by an animal, it has served its purpose in creation”. So too with Jews whose job it is to serve G-d, one must involve themselves in this service in order to fulfil their ascent and purpose in this world. Service of G-d however, must be done “besimcha ovetuv levov” (With happiness and a good heart). Without this, ones servitude becomes null and void as one may not serve G-d in a state of melancholy. (Tanya chapter 1)
Solution as provided by Chassidus
How can one digress from a state of melancholy, preoccupied with his or her indulgence in gratification and desire, to a purposeful and meaningful existence?
Quoting the holy Zohar, Tanya describes the ‘dullness of the heart’ as a “thick wooden beam, which does not catch fire” (chapter 29). In such an instance, the beam itself “needs to be splintered” in order to allow for its ignition. This anecdote is given towards a person who needs to break apart his impulse and desires to allow for the “permeation of light from the soul.”
The reference to the “light of the soul” refers to the light of the soul and the intellect. In such a state it fails to illuminate and prevail over the coarseness and desire of the body. Because the mind reigns supreme over the body, it is necessary for it to stem the flow of desire and redirect its influence into purposeful activities. Such action is not simple.
The method provided in Chapters 29 and 30 of Tanya involve:
• Setting aside time for humbling oneself
• Being ‘lowly of spirit before every man’ (quoted from Avot 4:10)
In so doing, one recognises the crassness of their desires and the struggle of other people.
Setting aside time for humbling oneself involves meditating (often done before prayer) on the greatness of G-d. Questions such as, what our mission is, and why we are here, how to obtain ascension and who we must be in our day-to-day lives, all require deep thought and study. Without meditation (Called hisbonenut in Hebrew), people are left to conform to the dictates of others, instrumenting a lack of empathy and often resulting in a deviance from the ideals taught.
This is a primary catalyst for the disengagement from ideals that is becoming more and more common within communities around the world.
The instruction to ‘be lowly of spirit before every man’ requires each individual to “judge not their fellow until (you) have stood in their place” (Ibid 2:4). Following such a direction involves taking the time to understand who these people are and where they must come from. The struggles others endure most often go unseen by their peers.
Additionally, in understanding that ones emotional faculties are secondary to their intellect, one can begin to use their intellect to control their heart and manipulate its influence in a productive and meaningful way (Tanya).
Pursuit of attention and the inherent need for validation are often a primary cause for judgement, conformity and depression. The need to keep up with developments in ones social circles and to secure an appreciating amount of recognition, leads a person away from his idealistic associations and into a world of insecurity.
The need to judge others in order to establish oneself continues to provoke hurt, and, debilitate individuals from expressing their problems and issues before others. This exacerbates the damage done and can cause greater problems in the future.
It is only through living mindfully and taking care of our relationships with others that one may invest in a purposeful and meaningful existence.