Throughout my life, I have tried to base my interactions with other people, whether in a professional or personal setting, on one principle: attention. It is out of this principle that I hope all of my actions follow.
Attention is one of the scarcest, but most needed, resources I have at my disposal. Attention is the seat of love; attention is the basis of compassion. Attention can come in many forms, but we usually think of it in terms of paying attention to other people.
But that metaphor—“paying attention”—isn’t quite right. Paying implies that attention is scarce, something we should only give to people we feel deserve it, as if our attention comes as payment for services rendered. However, many of us have nearly unlimited reserves of attention, waiting to be tapped.
We should work to shift the metaphor of paying to one of a free gift—giving our attention. When we make the move from payment to gift, we open up the circle of who deserves our attention. We can freely give it to those who have been ignored.
So, we give people attention. When pure and uninhibited, attention can be one of the greatest gifts a person can present, as we literally attend to people, to their words, emotions, and needs.
Attention, when we cultivate it regularly, can get us out of our own heads. People surprise us when when we give our attention to them, especially if we do not regularly do so. They subvert the caricatures we create and dismantle the narratives we write. The American Zen priest Norman Fischer once wrote that we should never figure other people out. Giving close attention keeps us from doing so. It opens us up to the wilderness of the other, a frighteningly beautiful prospect.
But we must also turn the attention inward, something we often fail at. We can use others to keep us from ourselves, to keep us from giving attention to our own needs, longings, and strivings. Sometimes we fear what we might find when we attend to ourselves, but it is a crucial part of living thoughtfully. Giving close attention to ourselves—through meditation, contemplation, or prayer—grounds us so that when we turn outwards, we can do so with clarity. We should strive to give attention to our own needs so we can rightfully give attention to others.
In words I find myself returning to again and again, Simone Weil wrote, “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.” Let’s hope and to give attention to this world of sufferers, lest we forget that we are sufferers too.
Tim Delong is a Master of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies the history of religion in the Americas with special attention to the intersection of Christianity and science. Before moving to Boston, Tim worked as a community organizer in Detroit, a housing counselor in Northern Illinois, and a financial counselor in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter @T_Delong.
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