What does it mean to “give attention” to something or someone? What does that look like? What faculties are employed? What thoughts are necessary to hold the other in our gaze for moments that matter, anticipating their speech or attending with our hearing in a way that could change us in an instant?
In an inattentive world what does it truly mean to “give attention?”
Surely, it is more than “paying attention” as if the attention being given will be reduced to some sort of transaction in which I extract something from the other or they from me. To “pay attention” is to invest, to force the will and mind into lock step so that we are literally handing over the equity of our faculties to the other…but in hopes of what? As the word insinuates, paying attention implies that the attending we give will reap us reward. Such seems to be a fairly common understanding.
For example, we pay attention in class in order to pass the test. We pay attention to our work in order to continue getting recompensed for our time. We pay attention when we drive in order to avoid a wreck.
As these examples illustrate, attention is given in order to gain, it is never truly given as gift of attendance, gift of presence, without ulterior motive. When attention is a concept to be paid, it is a concept that is only given when we gain, all other situations of attending being lesser, and less worthy, of our attendance since they do not seem to have a direct bearing on our well-being or future.
So again, what does it mean to give attention if it is not something to pay.
Have you ever been present with someone yet not attended to in that space? In other words, have you been with someone, sharing a moment, yet it is painfully obvious they are not “present” with you? They are in attendance, but they are not attending to the space with you. They may ask a question and then when you attempt to answer, it is as if they are not there. Worse, have you ever been in brief conversation only to be ignored mid-sentence by the next distraction?
Over the last year I have become mindful of the epidemic of inattentiveness in our culture. Of course, this is nothing new. We live in an age of short attention spans. Forms of digital media, games or otherwise, have become an additional narcotic with multiple studies citing negative health consequences for long-term exposure to short term stimulation. Further, fewer and fewer folks seem to be capable of pulling out that old codex (a book), and staring at non-animated graphics, (called words) for hours on end. We have become addicted to movement, our collective brains feeding on the next hit of dopamine, stimulated by our phones or tablets. It is grindingly laborious to give attention because everything, and everyone, is competing for it. Do we even possess the ability to attend anymore or have we lost that part of our humanity?
In an age of distraction, this question begs asking.
Ironically, it is in the inattentiveness that we seek out attention, something to momentarily captivate us. We seek to be held captive, and to also captivate, if for no other reason that we would be captive by the fact that we have been captivated.
This is the quest of/for attention: to give ourselves to that in which we can invest our gaze in order to find meaning, satisfaction, purpose. Attention is that which we do because life depends on it. One must give attention while crossing the road or the results could be unseemly. We are losing our lives as we have lost our attentive spirit. We will never find that which we seek because the mechanism of attention as gift, life to the giver and the receiver, has been misplaced. Perhaps it has been disabused beyond recognition.
So many things have our attention. But allow me to ask, does anyone feel as if they are being given attention by anyone, the modern family that sits in the same room all on a different device? Where is attendance? Why do we tend to something that will always demand more than we can give? Must we be lost in the abyss of an attention disseminated, if not deconstructed? Many have observed that we are connected in a plethora of ways, yet we are fantastically disconnected all the same.
Time would fail us to recount all the many broken relationships, broken homes, and broken dreams of people that exist because the person with whom they shared life did not give attention to them. There are people who wake up every day hoping for a kind word from their spouse, a hug from their son, a call from their estranged parents, someone to love them. These people wait in quiet anguish for attention from the ones they love. Not receiving attention, real human attention as gift, they live disconsolately silent, craving attention but being victims of the distraction of others. In a real sense, they are missing a part of their own humanity because they are not being named by the other, which begs the question: does our naming require one to name us? To give us attention? To attend, and hence give birth to this thing called life together? Is this not the intention of wanting to discover our authentic selves and then have such attended by others?
We can bristle at these questions, the blasphemy of such insinuations in our woken age of authenticity, but we must consider the following: what good is a name if there is no one to use it? How are we to be called if there is no one to call us? And without hearing our name how do we know we exist apart from the Cartesian hamster wheel of logic? Human constitution and attention seem to be intertwined.
Living lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau aptly noted, we have discovered that there is something worse than public speaking and something worse than death. If one would like to kill someone one, one needs only to ignore them, withhold attention. This is worse than being the subject of ridicule, the topic of slanderous accusations, or the bane of your enemy’s existence, for at least in all those instances we exist. We are. We have attention, even if it is the sort we’d rather not enjoy. But to ignore someone is to neglect them. To neglect them is to reduce their identity to nothing; it is to name them nothing worse than the something of nothing.
To ignore someone is to heap death upon them. Even being dead is preferred to living dead.
Of course, this topic of attention goes to the heart of what it means to be human, to live together, and to be observant (which itself implies some attention). As for inattentiveness, our inability to give attention, we have now come to a time in which we have moved past theology and philosophy, not to mention psychology, as viable frameworks that can offer responses to our postmodern sin of distraction. One needs not God for that; the pharmacy already has the prescription waiting for our arrival.
I am afraid that this issue of attention is a knotty one, one that I am not talented enough to solve. But its thinking has me wondering, what if attention is not something we pay but something we are, something we become? What if our being is one of attendance without perpetual reminders that such attending requires a payment for something the other has and I need? What if attention is not something we pay, or something we give, but something we are in each moment, with each person, in each day?
How on earth do we become attention? How does our presence echo atten-dance to those with us? What might help us focus on the face before us and not become distracted by the device in our pocket or the person crossing behind our line of vision?
I am reminded of something Jesus said, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:
Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me. Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You? Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me. (Matthew 25. 41-45)
Jesus can be called many things in the Gospels, but the very least he could be called is the One who gave attention. Jesus didn’t simply pay attention, or give his attention, he became attention to many people the world over in the Gospels. He was the attention many needed to be healed, restored, forgiven, included, loved, redeemed, named. His entire ministry, among many things, could be typified as one of great attention. We see in story after story, not a distracted Christ, but a Christ focused on the one before him, intently engaging, and hospitably extending himself even when he is clearly busy, clearly doing other things, clearly not planning on being attentive. But none of that mattered because Jesus was attention incarnate, God incarnate.
As people of faith, let me first suggest that we should become attention because we seek to be like Jesus: we seek to be sanctified for God’s attending work in the world, a work incarnate in Jesus. How can such a distracted people as we have become learn to be like Jesus when we miss a central aspect of his character: Attention? This divine attention is not marked by intention, but by the gift of presence, a pure gift in that it does not expect anything in return. Jesus is the gift of attention, as pure gift, grace incarnate as attention to those unattended.
Secondly, we give attention because in giving attention we are giving life. The attention that Jesus gave was life giving. Have you ever encountered a small child and given them attention? Allow me a fatherly example.
My daughter will often request that I play dolls with her in her room. She will tell me to be this doll or that doll and ask that I play with her for “just 5 minutes and then that’s enough.” Sometimes, after a long day at work, I will not hurriedly participate. She will come to me and berate me to play in the most loving way she knows how. If I do not succumb to her requests, she will go to her room alone, play alone, and sulk. Her daddy was not giving her attention. BUT, as soon as I come to my senses and step into her playroom, her eyes light up, her voice gets lighter, her feet move quicker, and she is animated once more. My attention gave her life.
This is an elementary example of how attention can change a person; it can breathe life into them. When we become attention, Godly attention, we are literally giving life to those who have been ignored, abused, neglected, or perhaps are simply friendless in a distracted world. There are myriads of people we rub elbows with every day that are depressed, anxious, uncertain, lost, confused. There are people who we think have their life figured out that will go home at night and wonder whether their life has any meaning. In a world full of people, there is a world of people missing a world until someone takes the time to be the bodily attention they need.
When we give attention, becoming attention in each small encounter, we are with our bodies affirming the other as an adored and valued part of creation, not only worthy of our attention but also worthy of God’s. When we fail to give attention, or we incarnate distraction, our attention becoming an equity to be placed where we can most benefit, we end up saying the opposite of our faith confession: you are fearfully and wonderfully made but not enough to matter to me. As believers, those whom Paul calls the body of Jesus (the corporal witness of Jesus on earth), our bodies are the presence of Christ toward others. When we withhold attention, we are, theologically speaking, withholding the sacrament of Christ’s presence to the world at large, to the face directly in front of us. May God help us.
Thirdly, we give attention because even as the body of Christ we need the face of the other in order to see Jesus, to learn Christ. As the Matthew passage suggests, “As you do to the least of these, you have done to me.” We give attention because Jesus is in the face and body of the other. We do this not out of some bizarre confusion of God’s metaphysical composition or out of fear of hell, but because we know that if we have not seen God in the face of the other than it is not God we see; we have become Narcissus. In attending to others, we attend to God, and in attending to God, we become part of the new creation. We become what we are created to be, and we help the other accept their identity as beloved children of God, as brothers and sisters created in the imago dei.
Lastly, though not exhaustively, the Christian community is attended to by Christ each Sunday at the table of Jesus, the altar of God. We hear the perpetuity of these words, “on the night that he was betrayed, he took, he gave thanks, be blessed, and said, as often as you do this do this in re-membrance of me.” The table is the ritual of anamnetically recapitulating the event of attending to the table with Jesus and with his disciples. As re-membrance, it is attending to the event of communion, of attending to Jesus’ attendance with us. As witnesses of, and atten-dants in that continually rehearsed event, one of the chief means we bear witness of that event is by going and attending to the world. The world is not something we can attend in totality; it is that which we attend to in the encounter with the other. The world is not the other but the other is the world.
The closing proclamation of eucharistic celebration directly states such, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” How? The Lord is to be found in the face of the other. As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. The proclamation could well also be “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord, being attentive to the least of these.” It is impossible to serve Jesus and not be attentive. Lord, forgive us for what we have done, and what we have left undone.
It is a difficult thing when we start to see the world with the attentiveness of Jesus. We see others being neglected. We see persons not being heard. We feel the pain of solitude. We see to the bottom of aching wells in the eyes of the other. We see our own interactions often fall victim to shallow words and distracted minds. When we learn to see the world with the attentiveness of Jesus, the Gospel becomes painfully difficult to imagine but surprisingly simple to perform: the goodnews is that God gives attention to us. God attends to us. As those in attendance with God, we feel in our bones the need to attend to others, and in so attending, invite the face of the other into holy attention with us, with God.
In the simple act of attending, we are admonishing, valuing, affirming, and loving the other, each other, one another. In giving and becoming attention, for a moment, we do not have to pretend what it might be like for Christ to be attentive to the other; We are allowing that same encounter to happen through us.
As we consider the ways and means in which we give attention, we should consider what it might mean to transform our understanding of attention from one of giving, or paying, to one of becoming. This is the process of sanctification: to slowly become that of which we partake in order to perform a unique task designated for holy purpose. Next time you find yourself in that mindless conversation, or in that brief moment of quiet desperation entrusted to you by a friend, colleague, family member, etc., consider what it might mean, if in that moment, attention became who you are rather than something you give. It might surprise you not only what you see, but more importantly, what you hear. May we be the Christ we want to see in the world.
Lord, may you quiet our hearts and steady our eyes as we see you in the moments we share with others. Sanctify us to be the incarnation of your son, in order that we may attend to one another as Christ has first attended to us. Amen.