Consecrating Attention: The Two Great Commandments

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
–Simone Weil, Letter to Joë Bousquet, 13 April 1942

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Attention is an economic good. We know this intuitively because we almost always talk about it in financial terms. We can pay attention. We can grab it, hoard it, and monopolize it. We can also be robbed of it, and, if we don’t have enough attention, we call it a “deficit.” Every day, thousands of companies spend millions of dollars to try to get us to trade ours for something shiny.

And also, what you give, or sell, your attention to almost entirely defines who you are.

Perhaps nobody thought as much about attention as a commodity than Simone Weil, the French philosopher and theologian that Albert Camus called “the only great spirit of our times.” I have read Weil’s great essay about attention–“Reflection on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”–perhaps a dozen times, and I still don’t really understand what she is saying. But it strikes me as more important than ever in a world whose attention is almost completely focused on COVID-19.

In plain economic terms, the world has sacrificed trillions of dollars at the altar of a microscopic organism that we can’t even see. But the sacrifice in attention has been even greater. It is difficult to find a major news story on anything else. And in my professional life as a university administrator, I have spent 8-10 hours a day over the last two months discussing (safely, over Zoom) our response to the novel coronavirus.

It has been disorienting–often depressingly so–to experience the way that a crisis like this drains my attention account. At first I thought it was a matter of time. But that’s not it at all. I spend about as much time these days dealing with COVID-19 issues as I used to spend dealing with dozens of different administrative problems. But I used to be able to come home and devote my attention to other things–intellectual work, mainly: writing, editing, and reading, you know, books and stuff.

Now I spend most of my time not working on tasks that require virtually no attention–things like taking Internet quizzes to find which character I am on a TV show that I have never seen or just staring into the void looking for anybody I know.

All of this is just a long windup to talk about the two things that I want to talk about, which are prayer and charity, or, more generally, loving God and loving our neighbors–two things that, Simone Weil says, are also all about attention.

“The Key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer consists of attention,” she announces at the beginning of the essay. “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.” These are challenging lines. They frame Christian prayer as a type of Old Testament sacrifice: When most people’s wealth took the form of crops and livestock, offering an animal to God required one to part with an important economic commodity. It is no less so in a culture whose most valuable commodity is attention.

For Weil, the primary value of education is that it develops the resource of attention. It doesn’t matter what we study, she argues, or even if we end up learning it. Algebra, French, history, music, biology, and economics all require us to develop the capacity to pay sustained attention to something. And that is a capacity that we need in order to have a meaningful relationship with God.

It is also the thing we need in order to love and minister to other people.

Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbour, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

To me, these are the most challenging words in the essay, and possibly the most challenging words in the world. They take notions like “service” and “charity” much further than even the New Testament does. Weil says that loving other people requires more than giving them time or money–or words of affirmation. It requires us to give them our attention.

It doesn’t always work this way. I feel pretty sure that Weil understood that, sometimes, people are trapped in burning buildings or lying wounded on the Road to Jericho. And there are people–especially now–who need food and housing or people to care for their children while they meet immediate physical needs. To people in these conditions, we need to consider their tangible needs.

But I still think that what most people need most of the time from us is our attention. People want and need to be seen and heard, to be known as they know themselves–not just to be loved generally, as a small part of “everybody in the world,” but loved specifically in ways appropriate to who they are. Ultimately, the Golden Rule is not sufficient. When we do unto others as we want them to do unto us, the intention is still on ourselves. The trick is to learn enough about others to do unto them without using ourselves as a reference point at all.

And that takes attention. When I think of God these days, I think of a being with infinite attention. To love others as God loves them, which is really what “charity” means, requires us to know them as God knows them. And that means devoting attention–the scarcest resource that many of us have–to understanding them.

Attention can also be a gift. And as COVID-19 ravages the world and diverts almost everybody’s attention to itself, our biggest challenge might be to find ways to give this precious resource to each other. “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say . . . What are you going through?'” Simone Weil suggests at the end of her great essay. “Only [those] capable of attention can do this.”

Comments

  1. Freckles says:

    I loved reading this; thank you for sharing.

  2. Michael, I think you’d like what Charles Taylor says about “joint attention” in The Language Animal. It’s one of the most valuable phrases he has provided me. A synonym for “joint attention” is “communion,” but it’s something else as well. It has exploratory elements to it that set aside the urge to impose one’s own meaning on others’ expressions. It is a heightened mutual focus whereby people establish a shared arena for focus and relationship. Joint attention is one of the crown jewels in Taylor’s theory of language, language being where so many of us live and breathe. I practice joint attention when I work with students as a writing tutor. It works.

    Taylor: “The human capacity for [joint attention or communion], this more intense and conscious mode of being together, is a condition for the development of language … and it is also regularly renewed and sustained in linguistic exchange. This is one way in which the development of language transforms our way of existing as an animal species.”

  3. Michael Austin says:

    Patricia, thanks for this reference. I think I need to move _The Langauge Animal_ even higher on my “to-read” pile–for once I have the attention to read again.

  4. The Language Animal is a bit of a mess, thesis- and structure-wise, but so was Secular Age, so that’s not surprising for Taylor. The insights within it are very solid, though.

  5. Simone Wiel is one of my most challenging thinkers. Her discourses on Eucharist are particularly meaningful.

  6. I read Mary Oliver’s “Upstream” last year, and one of the most brilliant lines in that very brilliant book was “attention is the beginning of devotion.” It’s really stuck with me since. I’ll have to read Simone Weil now. Thank you!

  7. This is what I needed to hear/read. Thank you.