The art of paying attention

It was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Lithuania. Everyone on the streets, on campuses and in supermarkets is minding their own business. Eye contact is avoided where possible, and a friendly nod as an acknowledgement of the other person’s existence is completely out of the question.

This is different from what I’m used to in the Netherlands. There, it’s normal to look up while walking, and eye contact on the streets is a normal part of living in society.

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A Vilnius trolleybus

Now, the reason I bring this up is because I think that paying attention to the world around you is a great means of joy in everyday life. Let me give you an example. I was sitting in a trolleybus (pictured on the right, for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about) and at a stop, two people walked out side-by-side. However, the person on the left wanted to go to the right, and the person on the right – you guessed it – wanted to go to the left. This resulted in a clumsy, awkward interaction that lasted a second or two, before the duo found a way to get out of each other’s way and continue their own path.

I think it’s clear that this is a result of people not paying attention. After all, if these two people weren’t so preoccupied with their own path and instead would be a little more interested in everyone else’s, this encounter wouldn’t have happened. However, that’s not the point I want to make here. The point is that I was the only one that was amused by the sight of their little dance. In fact, I think that I’m one of the few people that even saw it happening. And the people that did see the encounter apparently didn’t dare to visibly react.

This is a product not just of a self-centered way of life, but also a self-serious one. I laughed at the sight of two people bumping into each other, not because I felt better than them, but precisely because I knew the exact same thing could’ve happened to me. My amusement with the situation came from a certain self-deprecation, and the pleasant realization that other people make the same mistakes I make.

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A still from Playtime

A similar point of view can be found in one of my all-time favorite movies, Playtime. In this movie, we loosely follow a main character through a series of events in an airport, an exhibition and a restaurant. It seems at first as if not much is going on. The main character doesn’t seem to have much of a goal, at least not a very exciting one. But when you start paying attention to details, you see that the environments are incredibly lively and full of things to admire. The movie encourages you to make fun of the things you’re seeing, like a chair making a strange sound or… The movie celebrates people’s fascination with every-day things that are seemingly mundane.

Similarly, a ride in a trolleybus in Vilnius is a seemingly mundane activity, and if you see it that way, it probably will be. But if you lift up your head and open up to what’s happening around you, it can be a mood-changer in the best possible way.

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