The Soldier And The Policeman’s Trained Attention And Its Pathologies

In the chapter ‘Focus’ in his book of essays,The Examined Life, Robert Nozick writes:

The ability and opportunity to focus our attention, to choose what we will pay attention to, is an important component of our autonomy. [p.122]

In a footnote appended to this sentence, Nozick continues:

What we presently focus upon is affected by what we are like, yet over the long run a person is molded by where his or her attention continually dwells. Hence the great importance of what your occupation requires you to be sensitive to and what it ignores de jure or de facto, for its pattern of sensitivities and insensitivities–unless a continuing effort is made to counterbalance this–will eventually become your own.

Consider then, the soldier and the policeman, and the pathologies that are said to famously exist within these professions (each of which has been reckoned a pinnacle of masculinity in some dimension or the other): trauma, anomie, depression, rage, anxiety.

The soldier and the policeman are required to constantly detect danger, manifest in person and place and situation and object; they are taught to respond with hostility, with armed and dangerous bodies. (Some soldiers, if they are unlucky enough, work as policemen in occupied territories; counterinsurgency work and such patrolling and policing must surely count among the ‘dirtiest’ occupations of all.) They are finely tuned to turn their attention persistently and consistently in these directions; they return from tours of duty of urban spaces and warzones with their danger-and-hostility detectors turned on. They are on edge, irritable and tense and taut, filled with rage and fear, all easily manifest in domestic violence and suicide. They bring older selves to their professions and return with newer ones created in the crucible of their new work, where their focus and attention has been systematically diverted and focused, as it had been taught to, in the academy, in advanced training. There, they had been taught, repeatedly, to ignore many human qualities–for instance, the humanity of those they kill on the battlefield or those they capture, interrogate, handcuff, or imprison. It is, indeed, one of their ‘core competencies,’ the hallmark of their profession, and one they must perfect through practice over the course of their careers. They must be competent, at finding targets and perps, who are now not humans any more, but ‘enemies’ and ‘criminals.’ (On a related note, consider the anecdotal reports that oncologists are notoriously unsympathetic doctors. They might well be; after all, they are exposed to death all too often; all too many of their patients simply do not survive. This could result in greater sensitivity to death, but their work would be too onerously affected were they to let it affect them in deeper, more emotional ways.)

It should not surprise us that soldiers and policemen are ‘damaged’ thus by their work. Their ‘patterns of sensitivities and insensitivities’ have been altered, with little effort to ‘counterbalance’ them. Sometimes their enemies and opponents suffer the brunt of this; unfortunately, on many other occasions, it is their family, their neighbors, and friends and loved ones that do. We, as their parent society, bear some measure of responsibility for those we have so created and trained. A different society might eschew the need for such professions; till then, we remain with the pathologies we have set in motion.

An Irresponsible, Yet Edifying, Adventure

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I set out to hike Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands just outside New York City. I’d hiked the Ridge for the first time the day before we went and judged the route–sometimes exaggeratedly described as “the hardest hike around New York City”–to be doable by my almost-five-year old daughter. It was; the scramble up to the top is indeed steep and rocky at points, but nothing that a little hand-holding would not ameliorate. The greatest environmental hazards and barriers were the large weekend crowds from the city; hundreds of folks accompanied us on our hike, making us feel, more often than not, that we were concert goers heading up for a recital on the ridge’s exposed ledges. Enroute, on a flatter portion of the ridge, we stopped to watch a few youngsters doing some bouldering on a large rock structure with a crack running down the middle. One young man had already scaled the feature; another one was attempting to scale it. After a few tries, he gave up, joining in the laughing and general merriment that seemed to be characteristic of this young, adventurous group. My curiosity was piqued; I decided to give the route a try.

There was a minor problem with this decision. The bouldering underway was proceeding without a protective pad, the kind used to cushion falls when boulderers slip or dismount. The ground beneath was not rocky but the route was long and exposed enough to ensure that a fall could hurt badly. Nevertheless, I began my ‘ascent,’ wedging my fingers into the crack for my starting hold and moving on from there. I had lost sight of my wife and daughter; they had moved on ahead and up to the top of the rock. After a couple of false starts, and one partial retreat, I began inching my way up the face. As I did so, I realized with some alarm that the time for safe descents was past; I had to climb this rock in order to be safe. There was no way but up. All around me, my spectators had gone quiet. They had perhaps realized this fact too.

At that moment, a curious crystallization of my thoughts took place; I was gripped with a terror of sorts, but also a tremendous clarity. I had no choice; I had to make it. Every point of contact with the rock became measured; every movement became precise. I did not make any tentative moves; there was no attempt to use a hold that did not seem like it would work. I could see the ‘promised land’ just a few feet away, and sensed out of the corner of my eyes, the young man who had climbed the rock move toward me to extend a helping hand in case I needed it. But he would not be able to help me if I slipped, and certainly no one below me would be able to cushion my fall. I was simultaneously terrified and determined; I had to make this. Or else. That clarity made me climb on. Successfully.

A few seconds later, I was up on top, high-fiving folks. My wife fixed me with a stony glare, and told me to never try that again. She was right; had I fallen, I could have suffered a broken bone or two, a painful and inconvenient injury up at the top of Breakneck Ridge. We were hiking with our daughter, and we had to get her off the ridge as well. It was an irresponsible move on my part. And yet, for hours, I could not stop smiling. Those few moments of absolutely crystalline concentration of mind and body, of utter absorption in the task, of experiencing such acute sensitivity of touch and hold–all mingled with a peculiar terror–were indescribable. Yet again, climbing had delivered; I had been transported.

A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.