The lunatic in the coffee shop

We live so much, but remember so little.

Attention. Observation. Perception. Call it what you will, but the reality is that much of our life is lived with little of it.

We interact with thousands yet can barely remember them after our encounter. We go so many places but struggle to recall what we saw there. We are so infatuated with our own internal struggle that we forget to notice the richness, the colour, of the world we half-heartedly inhabit.

A couple of days ago, I started Ernest Hemingway on Writing. It’s a collection of excerpts from Hemingway’s correspondence and work which talks about the various aspects of the writing process. One that stuck out was this:

​“Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.”

On my Twitter feed, someone retweeted this: “There’s a guy in this coffee shop sitting at a table, not on his phone, not on a laptop, just drinking coffee, like a psychopath.”

Maybe the guy was on to something. Perhaps he’d taken the time to watch the peculiar stories of other people’s lives unfold around him. Maybe he understood the joy that a life lived with fully open eyes can bring.

Try it next time you’re in a public place. Just sit and observe. It will seem weird. And it will make you uncomfortable. You’ll feel that you should be better utilising that time, being productive. Or that everyone will notice you looking and listening. They won’t. They’re too busy to notice the weirdo in the corner, sipping and paying attention.

As you sit there, feeling like a lunatic, remember one thing.

We miss out on life when we forget to pay attention to it. Do as Hemingway counselled. “Listen now.”