Saint-Exupery zooms in on the limited reach of our consciousness, with a manifest personal example.
The field of consciousness is tiny. It accepts only one problem at a time. Get into a fist fight, put your mind on the strategy of the fight, and you will not feel the other fellow’s punches. Once, when I thought I was about to drown in a seaplane accident, the freezing water seemed to me tepid. Or, more exactly, my consciousness was not concerned with the temperature of the water. It was absorbed by other thoughts.
For a stunning example of a capacity to focus on the most important thing in hand, despite other distractions, see this quotation from György Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell.
Source: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras, trans. by Lewis Galantière (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 44
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