The Art of Ignoring

By Willy Ph. Felthuis

There is something fascinating about the principle of ignoring, because there is a paradoxical, almost conflicting element in it: it is seeing, and not taking action; knowing and pretending one is ignorant; being aware and yet not showing it. Certain ulterior motives entering into a situation which normally calls for direct action can lead to this intentional passiveness which conceals inner activity. Those who have had children in their care know the inestimable value of ignoring at the right moment — and as the element of timing is an important one, it probably could be developed into an art: either a valuable and beneficial one, or an extremely cruel one.

Let us first take the instance of ignoring the act of a child. We do not ignore any good behavior — we acknowledge and even praise it; but in the case of an undesirable act I have often wondered what the secret was: why ignoring worked so well and in what circumstances and situations. I came to the conclusion that we rely on this way of disciplining when the child does something just to get our attention — making a lot of noise, or doing something it knows perfectly well it is not supposed to do. Suddenly, we parents don't behave as we should, we don't say anything, we don't do anything, we just don't see what is happening. Most of the time the child will repeat the annoyance, make more noise, make another scratch on the wallpaper with his pencil, and wait expectantly for our reaction. But if there is only silence — what then?

Something within the child is aroused. Until then the parent, as it were, played the role of conscience, was the one who corrected, who took measures. Now, this "conscience" from outside does not even whisper a warning, nothing corrects him, no measures are taken. It is interesting to watch how the child starts reflecting on this strange phenomenon. Something within slowly takes over the controls, telling him that he is on his own. Obviously, the child does not consciously work this out in his mind, but he intuitively feels the shift in the balance of power. All who have experienced the often amazing results of thus ignoring at the right time (for I would be the last one to advocate letting a child break down the house or scribble on all the walls while we sit and "ignore") probably have been unconscious witnesses of the awakening of conscience, the birth of that element in the child which more or less willingly takes over the responsibility for what he does.

When we ignore an adult, however, it is often with a less unselfish motive; and we have to watch ourselves closely to make certain that we are deliberately shutting our eyes in order to help, and not because of weakness or because we do not want to see. I am quite sure that all of us, at one time or another, have felt the blessing of having been kindly unnoticed when we had said or done something which later filled us with shame and regret. This friendly ignoring did us a good turn, by putting us in the same position as the child: alone with ourselves, alone with that part of us that has to take the responsibility for all our acts and thoughts. Ignoring at the wrong time, however, can be very unwise; and if done with unkind motives, can hurt others deeply.

There are also circumstances in our daily experience that would perturb us considerably if we allowed ourselves to pay too much attention to them; yet it would be foolish to overlook them. There again the "art" comes into the picture: the subtle difference between overlooking in the sense of not-seeing, and the conscious disregard which is seeing but deciding to do nothing. There are of course certain situations which demand that we take some action, but there are others, perhaps more than we might think, on which we can have no constructive influence whatever. Yet how often we allow ourselves to get all excited about them, full of fear and tension! It is our responsibility both to observe and to learn from them, but at the same time to ignore them insofar as our becoming actively involved is concerned. In the long run we will not only benefit by such a course, because we shall not have worn ourselves out with unnecessary and unproductive energy, but we will also learn the advantage of unattached and objective observation. It is clear that ignoring also implies real action — action in inaction!

There is another category, the unpleasant elements in our own characters, that could benefit greatly from the same healthy treatment. To say that we are dual in nature is an over-simplification of our intricate make up, yet for our purpose duality will serve. We all sense in ourselves an observer, a part that watches us as we go through life, doing things well or badly, thinking good, bad, and indifferent thoughts; a part in us that observes our character traits, and is either amused or disappointed, and at times even disgusted with them. To improve the undesirable aspect of our natures, we can do several things. If we discipline it too strictly, try to "beat it out" of us, I do not think we follow the wisest way, as then we do not take the trouble to find out the reason for its existence. There are at least two other ways open: one is to see what is behind the negative tendency, try to understand why it is there, then make an effort to lead the energy behind it in more desirable directions, into worthwhile channels. It is almost a parallel to diverting attention in the case of a child. The other way is wise ignoring, which I am convinced often works in this case too. If we fight a fault, whatever it may be, we lower ourselves to the same level and thus have no control over it. The more attention we give it, the stronger and the more persistent it becomes. But when we recognize the defect for what it is, know why it is there — just as we knew why the child did the thing we ignored — instead of making a big issue out of it, we simply disregard it. If some time later we suddenly miss that fault and dare to look for it, we may find a shriveled-up thing we hardly recognize any more; it just died a natural death from lack of attention.

There is a great deal in us that is just like a child: sometimes we want to do things that we know are not right, to go just one step off the path to "see what it's like" — all the time knowing perfectly well what will happen: we shall have to carry the responsibility ourselves; sooner or later we shall have to erase the scribbles on the wallpaper. Discrimination and courage, sensitivity and firmness, a sense of humor and a touch of wisdom are needed — if we manage to combine even a little of each of these, we can at least be called students of the art of ignoring.

 (From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)


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Character growth, in each individual human being, is a growth in likeness to others and a growth in unlikeness, as well. As we move from childhood to youth, and thence to middle and old age, qualities appear and recede, and the personality passes along to unity and harmony, or else there is disintegration. He who believes as I do that the Grecian sage was immortally right when he enjoined man to know himself will agree that though understanding character is a difficult discipline it is the principal science of life. . . . Limiting ourselves to a humble effort to know our fellow men and our own selves, we shall find that our efforts not only add to our knowledge but add unmeasurably to our sympathy with and our love for our fellows. — Abraham Myerson