A New Year is upon us and it seems like as good a time as any to take a step back and think about any goals, hopes, expectations I might have for 2010. I’ve never been one for making New Year’s resolutions, but if I could isolate one thing that I would like to characterize the coming year to a greater extent than it has any of my previous years it would be this: I would like to pay better attention.
Of course this sounds impossibly vague and difficult to evaluate on one level, but perhaps I can explain. Toward the end of 2009 I read a book by Winnifred Gallagher called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (I plan on discussing this book further in a future post). Gallagher’s basic thesis is that what we pay attention to shapes our experience of the world. The very neurological structure of our brains is affected by what we pay attention to! If we allow the focus of our attention to be dominated by whatever happens to cross our cognitive landscape—positive or negative—in an eminently distracted and distractable culture, our experience of reality will increasingly be scattered, reactionary, dissatisfied, and unproductive. To (inadequately) sum up a book that really is worth reading in its entirety, we have the ability to actively shape our experience of the world by virtue of how we allocate one of our most precious resources: attention.
Of course, there are limits to the extent to which attention can shape our experience of the world. Reality is not entirely malleable, after all. There are times when it seems like all we can do is ride the waves of the events and challenges life throws at us without going crazy or giving in to despair. It is great to say that we need to be proactive in shaping our experience, but there is an irreducible component of our lives that simply is reactive. Choosing how we will pay attention and to what we will attend does not make the pain of life go away.
I was reminded of this as I sat in the bleachers of a little prairie hockey arena yesterday afternoon. The local Junior B team had pledged all of their gate receipts, among other things, to assist a friend of mine in his ongoing battle with cancer (I mentioned a bit about his story here) so I went to show my support. A brief conversation with my friend during one of the intermissions provided another reminder (as if one was necessary) that there are elements of reality that we can do nothing about. Cancer doesn’t ask first, it simply invades without warning. And now my friend must react.
But on the other hand, as my friend is demonstrating with the courage and honesty and stubbornness with which he is facing his battle, we can choose how we will respond. My friend is not sugarcoating what cancer is like or what his prospects are. He is facing this thing with clear vision and blunt honesty. But from speaking with him and reading his online journal, it is obvious that he is also choosing what he will devote attention to as he fights. He attends to his son, his community, his friends, his future. He tries not to let the negative overwhelm the positive. The manner in which he is facing an obstacle he did not choose is an inspiration to all who know him. Cancer is a big part of the picture for him, but it is not the only part.
I have had a quote on my sidebar virtually since I began blogging. It comes from a book by Peter Berger called Heretical Imperative:
It is not given to men to make God speak. It is only given to them to live and to think in such a way that, if God’s thunder should come, they will not have stopped their ears.
As I lay in bed last night and thought about my brief conversation with my friend and about what the coming year might hold for him (and any of us, for that matter) I thought that perhaps this quote could be modified a bit to express some of my sentiments at the outset of this new year:
It is not given to men to make God act. It is only given to them to live and to think and to hope in such a way that, if God’s thunder—or his mercy, deliverance, healing or redemption for that matter—should come, they will not have stopped their ears.
There is much—too much, it seems—that we cannot control in life. But there are a few things that we can control, a few choices we can make. We can live well. We can pay attention. We can hope. We can be found as those who wait expectantly.
This much we can do—this year or any year.