Take the Headphones Off and Pay Attention

| by Bert Armstrong

Let me be clear. Snakes are #1, #4, and #7 on my top 10 list of things I fear on this earth. I get the heebie-jeebies at any mention of snake sightings, keep my head on a swivel when the neighbor mentions they found one in their backyard, and usually turn away from snake scenes in movies and television shows. So even while living miles away from the African zebra cobra’s North Raleigh neighborhood, the very thought of its escape made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention.

Recently I struck out on a walk/run at Lake Johnson Park; this has become a staple of my pandemic health improvement plan. At about mile three, moving at a slow jog and listening to my playlist of 80’s rock music, my mind was focused on hitting my daily goal: five miles, 10,000 steps, and 800 active calories burned. That, coupled with trying to remember the lyrics to Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again (OK, not really a Whitesnake song but it adds some color to my story), I was totally unaware of my surroundings as I glanced up just in time to see a large black snake lying quietly on the path right in front of me, no more than a couple of strides away. 

We all know that moment when fear takes over. Your heart is pounding through your chest. All kinds of illegible utterings start spewing from your mouth. And you find that momentary bit of adrenaline that gives you super-human capabilities. My reaction to the close encounter with fears #1, #4, and #7 was all of that. And the group of women behind me on the path were forced to hear those unfortunate utterings and witness an Olympic-style long jump as I leapt up and over the sunbathing reptile stretched out in front of me.

Thankfully, the moment passed without harm to me or the snake. But my attention was now laser focused on my surroundings. I stared at large sticks lying on the ground and vines that wrapped around trees, convinced that my next snake encounter was imminent. As I slowly stepped back from the edge of panic, another thought came over me – one that helped change my feelings about the day. In my new, hyper-attentive state, I observed some simple but interesting things that I am sure I would have missed if I kept my head down and headphones on. I would have missed the two broad-winged hawks gliding over the creek next to me, just a few feet above the water. The kids drawing out their hopscotch board on the walkway. The older gentleman picking up trash along the path. The dad and his young daughter playing splash paddle in their canoe. The young boy learning how to bait his fishing hook.  

Being attentive to our surroundings can open our eyes to the dangers around us, like my reptilian nemesis, the snake. It also gives us opportunities to see and hear beautiful things, insightful things, awe-inspiring things. Things that give you greater appreciation for the people and places that surround us daily. Things that give you faith in humanity. Things that remind you of another heart-pounding feeling – joy.

As we welcome staff and volunteers back into offices, arrange more in-person visits with donors, and embrace the ever-present throngs of people we serve, let’s help them overcome the fears and anxieties that are keeping them from being their best selves. See and hear what is going on with the people around you. Don’t get so wrapped up in your own stuff that you miss out on the important experiences, stories, questions, laughter, and calls for help from those around you. Recognize their hard work and extra effort. Notice the stressors they are experiencing before they become debilitating. Celebrate personal and team accomplishments.

Be that person who takes the headphones off and looks up and out at what’s happening in the world around you.

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