Sugar and Attention: You Have to Have Them, But in the Right Ways

By Bobby Neal Winters Published on October 19, 2022

I will be turning 60 soon. I’ve learned a few things in those 60 years. Among these is that some things in life — maybe most things — are not all or nothing. Life requires finding the right measure, between too little and too much. That’s really true of attention. We can get too little and we usually want too much.

It’s like sugar. Sugar and attention should both be treated like controlled substances. They are addictive and once you get hooked, trouble can follow. We need both, but how we receive them matters.

You Need Sugar

I am a sugar addict. I have a sweet tooth as big as Texas. The simile would be better if Texas were made of chocolate, but then I would probably have been found dead a long time ago with Fort Worth dribbling down my cheek.

Nutritionally, sugar is complicated. You don’t actually have to eat sugar to live. It does occur naturally in some foods, like fruit, but you don’t have to eat sugar.

But — and here is where the word complicated is justified — your body has to have it. You don’t have to eat it, but you do have to have it. Sugar is your source of energy. Your body makes sugar. Your liver makes it for you from the other foods you eat.

I do know one application: the need to pursue excellence in the love of God without asking for anyone’s attention or reward — except God’s.

But you don’t have to eat it directly. For the most part, you shouldn’t. Too much sugar taken too directly is very bad for you.

When you eat it directly, you do get a quick boost. I don’t need science to tell me this. Eating candy while I drive will keep me awake better than caffeine. Caramel M&Ms are perfect for this. They are like crack cocaine to me (though I don’t know that from experience).

Since I began my weight loss program last year, my consumption of sugar has gone way, way down. I don’t remember the last time I even put sugar in my tea. I’ve begun to use it more like medicine. Last week I was falling to sleep at the wheel as I drove back from Oklahoma, so I stopped for Caramel M&Ms and they perked me right up.

But this is a slippery slope because the addiction is real. It’s been a week and the Caramel M&Ms have been calling to me ever since. How you get the sugar your body needs matters.

You Need Attention

As I said, attention is a lot like sugar: We have to have it, but the way we receive it is important.

This following example may sound brutal, so consider this as a trigger warning. When I was a kid, I was with some adults watching the younger children playing. One of the kids fell down and scraped his knee. My grandfather, my dear Grampa Sam, told the rest of the adults: “Don’t pay attention to him or he will cry.” They didn’t pay attention to him, and he didn’t cry.

I’ve been in similar situations where the child has begun to cry and the adults pretended not to see, and the child quieted himself. That might not be strange to you, but I’ve been living in a social circle where every boo-boo is immediately kissed and every tear is immediately dried. This has an effect, and time will tell us what it is. I don’t think it will be good.

Clearly there are times when we must immediately pay attention to our children’s pain — a bone sticking out of a leg is a pretty good clue — but if you give the child more attention than a “boo-boo” is worth, that is a net reward for the child. We get more of whatever we reward.

One could call the amount of crying that is beyond what is warranted by the name “drama.” If you reward drama, you get drama.

But the Right Amount of Attention

There are things we should reward with attention. When my daughters were younger, they took part in music for a short time. (They were fired by their teacher, but let’s not go there.) We went to music contests. The children played their pieces, stood and took their bows, received their applause.

It occurred to me that for a talented young person, this would become an entitlement. It then occurred to me that the same thing happens to academics like me. Work hard, do good on a test: Get rewarded with attention. Work hard, write a good essay: Get rewarded with attention.

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It’s true for many people. Work hard and perform well: Get attention.

In the right measure, this is good. But what is the right measure? It’s not what many people think.

You should be rewarded with attention in the learning process … in the beginning. There has to be a time when you transition to something more mature. You have to transition from working hard to become excellent so you can receive the reward of attention to the point where the excellence is the reward itself. You have to want to do well, to be excellent, for itself, even if you don’t get any attention.

The Example of Babe the Pig

My model for this comes from the movie Babe. After Babe’s remarkable performance in a sheep-herding competition, the trainer says, simply, “That’ll do, Pig.”

Addiction to sugar can lead to obesity and diabetes. Addiction to attention can lead to narcissism and all other weird quirks of human behavior that I don’t have space to go into. Those of us in academic administration like to call it “job security.”

I am dealing with my own sugar addiction by giving myself rules for when I can eat sugar. I can eat one cookie in the church parlor right after church, for example. I can eat one regular-sized bag of Caramel M&Ms if I am falling asleep at the wheel while driving.

The attention thing is harder. The “that’ll do, Pig” level of attention is not for everyone. The proper measure is different for everyone. It is an area where I’ve more questions than answers.

But I do know one application: the need to pursue excellence in the love of God without asking for anyone’s attention or reward — except God’s. That’s maturity in the faith. You can’t be addicted to the world’s attention here, because the world will reward you with attention when you do what it wants, not what God wants. That’s even more dangerous than Caramel M&Ms.


Bobby Neal Winters is associate dean of the college of arts and sciences and a university professor at Pittsburg State University. A native of Harden City, Oklahoma, he blogs at Red Neck Math and Okie in Exile. His last article for The Stream was “Of Weathermen and Queen Elizabeth II.”

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