“When it’s over, I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” __Mary Oliver
I was caught by this one line in The Atlantic article, by poet and writer Mary Oliver, “Attention is the Beginning of Devotion“. In this world of myriad sensory inputs, attention to any particular thing is becoming nearly impossible. Apps, gadgets, screens, shows to binge and more; is there scope for attention, is there scope for devotion?.
If everything and everyone is calling out for our attention, then where should we expend our power of carefully thinking about, listening to or watching? Deciding where we spend our attention is the number one problem in this new world.
Attention: power of carefully thinking about, listening to, or watching someone or something __Merriam Webster Dictionary
Could we be turning into a species that will destroy itself because of attention deficit, one human at a time? How can we not have regrets at the end of our life if we never pursued anything all the way through, spreading our attention to a million things but not going in depth on any one thing, was this any different hundreds of years ago when there were fewer gadgets, screens and apps? I believe so. For example, in the 1400s people seem to have pursued one kind of work most of their life.
From the above drawings I observe a couple of things, people were doing things manually, there was little automation if any and hence working on one thing took a long time and needed manual attention. Second, people employed dedicated people for a job e.g. servants to test food. Imagine spending time to watch someone test your food before eating it and doing it for every meal. It tells me that there was a lot of time spent preparing and eating food just to stay alive, how much time would one have left to engage in other activities, not much.
Perhaps the question is not “Is it bad to be a polymath?”, in other words, is it wrong to try to do many things, but perhaps the real question is, would you be able to do many things and do them really well. If the answer is yes, by all means go ahead and do them. If not, stop everything but the most important one or two activities and follow them until done really well, then follow the next one or two.
Wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci a polymath? He studied art, architecture, science and technology in depth. I don’t know the answer to this question? Should one pursue one path all their life or explore many paths? May be it depends on what makes one happy when they look back at their life. That’s easy to say but hard in reality as one needs to either project themselves into their old age and do the things today that “might” make them happy later or simply look back at whatever they did and be happy without judgment.
Mary Oliver’s poem, When Death Comes, seems to suggest that it’s only in embracing everything that comes along in life with curiosity and amazement and not being set in becoming any one thing in particular, is the way to live life
“When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”Mary Oliver
Decisiveness is crucial to moving forward with action whilst time shall pass and we will have nothing done when we look back. Even to take in everything with amazement as Mary Oliver calls out, one needs to make the decision to do so.
I am reminded of the “Don’t be a donkey” story that I heard Derek Sivers narrate. The story goes, a donkey is stuck in the middle of the road trying to decide to go left and drink water from a bucket or go right and eat the pile of hay. In trying to decide, the donkey wastes all his time and dies with hunger and thirst. If only he realized that he could have very well first had the hay and then drank the water or vice-versa, he would be alive and kicking!