Part 1 – Attending to our stories and our experiences

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had the lessons of middle age available to us when we were entering adult life? I think of this now because I am in the process of leaving a job where, for 5 years, I have been teaching educational and life strategies to very young adults (19 – 24 years old) in a university setting. The course has been concerned with time management lessons, habit-forming behaviors regarding personal health and well-being, and information-processing techniques like note-taking, and models for diverse intelligence profiles, but it has also delved deeply into authentic identity formation, our tendency to addictions, the all-too-common experiences of depression and debilitating anxiety, and our individual relationship to the natural, social, and spiritual environments. More often than not, the students in the course struggle in at least two of these areas, and almost everyone is existentially concerned with identity formation in social contexts. The central concern of these young adults is to be authentically themselves amidst diverse relational expectations of new love, of parents, employers, friends, classmates, and of their professors. They want to not only be authentic, but also self-directing. 

They, like so many of us, have a concern with the stories they present to other people about themselves. By the end of the course, they tend to have a common concern to be authentic in the stories they tell of themselves. As we get to middle age, there is a greater tendency for this concern with our authentic identities to appear in the rear-view mirror, although it would be an overstatement to say the concern for identity formation in social contexts does not, at least occasionally, occupy a central place in our attention. In the course, two kinds of inauthentic stories appear as pitfalls on the road to authenticity: 1) performative behaviors that attempt to control the perception another person has of oneself, and 2) glossed-over stories of our darkest powers and traumatic experiences that are often avoided with self-flattery and addictive coping mechanisms. It has often been said that “pride comes before the fall” and these two inauthentic pitfalls often appear as youthful pride. Undergirding this youthful pride is a kind of deep concern with the kinds of stories we tell, and with the sudden realization that our narrative understanding of ourselves, perhaps wrongly, occupies a central place in our attention.

In other words, we find ourselves myopically concerned with a self-narrative way of engaging with the world. What does what I am experiencing have to do with me? What can I get out of it? What do I want to learn? How will I contribute to the world after graduation? How can I negotiate the extreme stereotypes of race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, nationality, and social expectation and show up as I really am? What will be my legacy? 

In middle age, these two habits of performative authenticity and telling oneself internal stories that avoid our shadowy sides, often start to appear in our rear-view mirrors because our sense of pride takes a serious hit with the responsibilities of raising children and caring for elderly parents, with increased work responsibilities, and with the demand that we do not let these stresses overwhelm us. A main lesson of middle age is the realization that such a myopic concern for identity in a social context becomes more marginal amid more pressing concerns for others. And in middle age, we start to again long for a time in our lives when we can go out and experience the world again, as we did as kids, as a place of wonder and enjoyment. Middle-aged people tend to become aware that they have been alienated from a central experience of childhood (which is buried deep in their unconsciousness) and that one can experience the world as “cool!”, as “fascinating!”, as “full of awe!” Such is the language of newly-retired people as they begin again to go hiking, travel the world, and visit their adult children and their infant grandchildren, whom they often care for as well.

What begins to dissipate in middle age is the narrative concern with self-identity. In its place, an experiential concern becomes the locus of awareness. We could understand a typical life this way: In childhood, our attention is directed on our experience of the world; in adolescence, our experiential attention is slowly replaced with narrative attention of the world – most strongly experienced in post-adolescence; in middle age, our narrative attention is at its highest, and begins again to give way to our experiential awareness; and in later middle age and beyond, our experiential attention returns to prominence.

Consider this cycle for a moment. We have commonly been invoked not to buy stuff but to buy experiences, and this has been considered so revolutionary that minimalism is a thing. Our consumeristic expression of our narrative focus is understood as an obstacle to enjoying life to its fullest. We also have been overwhelmed with exhortations to yoga and mindful meditation. Both of these approaches direct our attention to experiencing the world and life in the particular ‘here and now’. Whether it is through attentional awareness of our breath in particular, or our bodies more generally, the general direction of the trends is away from narrative attention toward increasing our capacity for more experiential attention.  Such suggestions, taken together, acknowledge the psychological and cognitive life cycle I outlined above but resist its normativity. In other words, there is something wrong with myopic attention on our personal narrative, and life doesn’t have to be this way. 

Considering the evidence of the overemphasis on our attention on the self-narrative it makes sense that almost every adolescent kid begins to stress, in their teenage years, about what the story of their life will be. It also seems to naturally follow that middle age people reach a crisis that appears as a desire for new experiences. They notice and mention more frequently, a decline in bodily function that can inhibit a joyful experience of the world (e.g. “My back hurts!”). And the age of wisdom, whether consciously or not, elderly people lose almost a complete interest in the content of their legacy and truly grieve their loss of the ability to experience, due to dementia, Alzheimer’s, and diminishing sight and hearing, among other degenerative disorders. Elderly people, at the moment when their attention is re-focused entirely again on experience, have lost their youthful capabilities to thoroughly engage with the world in the way they unconsciously remember from their childhood, i.e. with vigor, vitality, and exuberance. 

Perhaps there is something more central to experiential attention that gets lost when narrative attention has come to dominate beginning in adolescence and well into middle age. It turns out, there is new research that confirms just that. Using the phenomenological research of Maurice Merleau-ponty and a focus on attention by the contemplative Simone Weil, Rowen Williams advocates for us to “attend to attention.”  

However, for our purposes, it is important to understand that the stories we attempt to tell about ourselves tend to get in the way of our experiencing the world, and the fight for our attention is, in fact, the economic catalyst of our time, both of our individual use of time and more generally, of our age. In fact, our attention should come to be understood as “a morally and spiritually charged phenomenon.”

Without delving any further into the philosophical forest of attention, we can understand how attention and personal identity are intrinsically related by considering one of my favorite TV personalities who is still alive: David Letterman.

Part 2: Why David Letterman held our attention    

As the longest-running late-night talk show host ever, David Letterman is a comedian, entertainer, and thinker; he can help us articulate three aspects to understand this transition from narrative attention to experiential attention. Letterman held our attention for so long. If you are North American and were born between 1960 and 1990, there is a great chance you are familiar with the way Letterman and Johnny Carson interacted. Carson, who was a fixture host of The Tonight Show, was the person who entertained millions of people just before they fell asleep – just before midnight every weeknight. He was also the person who gave Letterman his first real break in show business. Carson eventually took on Letterman as a protegee, often allowing Letterman to be the guest host. Letterman had his own talk show, Late Night with David Lettermen, that immediately followed Carson.

If you would like to see this dynamic, here is the interview Carson and Letterman did in 1991 after it had been announced that Lettermen would not take over for Carson on The Tonight Show:

The differences between the two shows did not merely represent the different entertainment tastes of the Boomer Generation and Generation X / Millennial Generation; they also gave a strong indication of evolution in human consciousness. In other words, the differences between the two shows heralded the different kinds of attention people were exerting – narrative attention and experiential attention. Take a look at the two styles of shows:

The Tonight Show and its narrative attention:

Late Night with David Letterman and its experiential attention:

Without going into the details of the style of comedy bits and interviews each of the shows had, one can completely see that what people were really interested in had changed. People, in the ages I had described above as primarily dominated by narrative attention, started to attend to experience. The difference Letterman heralded was the realization that the public was permitted to explore experiential attention. 

Further, Lettermen himself had begun to throw himself into an experiential engagement in the show. From dropping stuff off of buildings to working in a Mcdonalds’ drive-thru to profiling stupid pet tricks and stupid human tricks, Lettermen not only emphasized experience but was throwing himself into the center of the experience.

This, in some sense, shows an evolution of spiritual attention: we no longer are so enthralled with narrative. Instead, we desired to attend to experience.


The shift of attention from narrative to experience can be understood deeply philosophically and psychologically. Brain science has even started to show that different hemispheres of the brain house the two different types of attention. This matters because, for one, we are bedeviled by a distinction between reality and fantasy. We are also well-acquainted with our unconscious biases and how they are at home in our narrative attention and are mitigated in our experiential attention. However, we also really are still puzzled about how we know things at all. Perception, it seems, is not straightforward by any account.

But on a more everyday engagement with the world, we can see that engaging experientially with the world can be more joyful, and that narrative attention tends to make us wholly reliant on a mind that is easily distractible and filled with an unending stream of disjointed and scarcely controllable thinking.

If we can train ourselves to be more directly engaged with experience then we may, in fact, be less impacted by traumatic experiences, less prone to addiction, more open to each other, and more attentive in a way that gives others the recognition and respect they deserve.

Becoming more experientially attentive may indeed be worth the while – and we may be able to mitigate some of the drawbacks of narrative attention that include depression, anxiety, burnout, overwork, and anything we might call a midlife crisis.

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