The luxury of inattention

I read a lot about fitness.

Non-fiction about fitness can be motivating. I find it especially useful to read when I shouldn’t workout due to injury. It lets me maintain momentum through a period when I’d otherwise be idle. I also find fiction about getting in shape to be motivating. (Either one is generally a lot more motivating than most of what passes for fitness motivation. I’d meant to link that to the motivation stream in the “Fitness” community I follow in Google Plus, but decided against it. Too much of the so-called motivation is either demotivating or outright offensive.)

There’s an issue with this source of motivation: both fiction and non-fiction come with a worldview—a model of what fitness is, what it’s for, what behaviors lead to it.

This is noticeable in non-fiction, particularly when the model is weird as to its goals or methods. But it’s especially noticeable in fiction, because then it gets bound up with the goals of the fictional characters. For example, the hero in Greg Rucka’s Critical Space (I’ve mentioned the fitness montage in the middle of that book before, as a good example of the sort of thing I find motivating) is getting in shape to be ready to defend against an assassin.

As long as I’m choosing reasonable behaviors that lead to fitness in a model of my choice, I figure the fact that there’s an action hero doing some of the same stuff is harmless.

Sometimes the fictional character’s worldview resonates with me. For example, one thing Rucka’s hero describes is that learning how to carry himself—learning how to be balanced, centered—teaches him how to see that in other people. My taiji practice has begun to produce the same result in me. I notice when people do or don’t have a good vertical structure, something that I never would have thought to notice before.

Other times the fictional character’s worldview holds nuggets that are genuinely worth picking up. It’s common, for example, for a hero to get better at paying attention to what’s going on—to be more vigilant and watchful. Clearly a useful perspective if you’re living in a thriller or an action-adventure, but probably even if you’re not. Paying attention to what’s going on around you is just good advice. Even if you’re not being targeted by an assassin, being inattentive makes you more vulnerable to everything from muggings to being hit by a car.

Which brings me to the title of this post. As someone who does not live in a thriller or action-adventure, I have the luxury of not paying attention.

As one specific example, when I play Ingress, I pay very close attention indeed—but the focus of my attention is on the fictional augmented reality of the game. Despite its grounding in the actual built environment of public sculpture, the game really distracts me from paying attention to the people who are nearby. I do make a point of being very careful about cars—I don’t cross roads or driveways with my head down at my phone—but I’m much less attentive to people nearby.

While I’m playing Ingress, an assassin would have no trouble getting to within arm’s reach completely unnoticed.

The other augmented reality game I play, Zombies Run!, isn’t as bad, because it doesn’t occupy my eyes. Even so, its fictional world colors my perspective of the real world.

I’m not alone in this. Mur Lafferty describes the immersive power of the game this way:

I was running to avoid a zombie chase . . . and I passed another runner going the opposite way. I nearly yelled that she was running right toward the zombies and she should turn and race away like me. But since I don’t want to be labeled the neighborhood crazy lady, I didn’t do this. I also feel a need, when I pass someone walking, to tell them that they should pick up the pace because of what is behind me . . .

An immersive game is fun. It is a great luxury to feel safe wandering about in public with my attention on a fictional world rather than the real one. I probably indulge myself a bit too much.

In this case, it would probably be wiser to take the advice of my action heroes, and pay attention.

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