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Paying Attention

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.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent post Ryan.

    January 4, 2010
  2. Interesting, Ryan; thanks. — A couple of years ago when I was considering what I might resolve for the coming year, I had a similar sense of imperative, though it was somewhat more specific: I realized I needed to care about Africa. Not by sending more money or going there on some kind of short-term mission but simply by paying attention — paying attention when it came before me in the newspaper or in other ways — not just passing over it to something more scintillating, but reading, looking at the globe to learn the particular country in question, trying to remember and understand the issues and names. This proved much more difficult than I’d imagined and I’m afraid I didn’t do a great job of it. — But I think paying attention can be a kind of call, at least for a time, and I wish you many opportunities this year to fulfill your resolution. — And, I’m looking forward to hearing more about the book.

    January 5, 2010
    • Thank you Dora. I’ve been thinking very similar thoughts to the ones you describe. It’s far too easy to “pass over” things—especially when the next interesting or entertaining article is only a click away. Choosing to devote sustained attention to something for specifically chosen reasons is, I fear, becoming a bit of a lost art in our technified society. Perhaps it is a “call”—I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. I think we certainly see the exercise of focused and deliberate attention in the life of Jesus. Perhaps those who claim to follow him ought to be leading the way in pushing against the distraction and trivialization of modern society with all of the negative effects it produces on our psychological well-being, relationships, etc.

      January 5, 2010
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Paying attention can give focus and substance to prayer. If we believe what we say we believe, perhaps our single greatest contribution to the common welfare of all, in the service of our Lord, in the service of all that is good and true, is intercessory prayer.

    What can our efforts apart from the will of God accomplish? How are we to discern the will of God and the true course of action for our lives? Speaking for myself joy abounds, irrespective of the circumstances around me, when my prayer life is rich. When it falters, so do my relationships with life.

    Prayer must be at the beginning, middle and end of all things.

    For those who read and write here it is my prayer that through this community we are moved to a deeper, holier relationship with the Lord and with life as we find it.

    I would hope that we would move from intellectual musings regarding Christianity’s validity, to a position of certainty. For us, Christ is truth. For us, the debate is over. Let us use our time together more effectively then. Let us engage each other in ways that deepen our understandings and commitments. While there is much here that is good, in many ways, like with many blogging communities, we continue to refine the premise, the more superficial aspects of faith. Good thoughts should lead to good actions. If our community is to grow, it is time to act.

    Ryan, perhaps we can discuss the particulars of prayer and pray together. Perhaps we can discuss the particulars of fasting/sacrifice and do so together. Perhaps we can discuss the particulars of service and serve together. Perhaps we can discuss the particulars of worship and worship together.

    Mdaele was right to challenge me before Christmas, asking me what real good I thought we were accomplishing here. The question lingers and I cannot help but think that I can only answer it honestly and effectively before the Lord, if we deepen the relationship spiritually.

    To that end, I will be spending the evening here in prayer on behalf of your friend and his family. I will go to the “Blessed Sacrament” in our church and sit with Jesus, adoring His person and asking Him for help.

    Please do not read any rebuke into my comments here, there is none.

    There is only gratitude.

    January 5, 2010
    • I think prayer is a certainly form of paying attention—to God, to your life, to the needs of others. I agree that intercessory prayer is an important part of our mandate as followers of Christ.

      I would hope that we would move from intellectual musings regarding Christianity’s validity, to a position of certainty. For us, Christ is truth. For us, the debate is over. Let us use our time together more effectively then. Let us engage each other in ways that deepen our understandings and commitments. While there is much here that is good, in many ways, like with many blogging communities, we continue to refine the premise, the more superficial aspects of faith. Good thoughts should lead to good actions. If our community is to grow, it is time to act.

      I’m not quite sure what to make of this paragraph. As I’ve expressed many times, I do not share your suspicions of the value of “intellectual musings” nor do I think that this blog deals only with “superficial aspects of faith.” As I’ve said before, this is a medium with many limitations and peculiarities. All kinds of people drop by here with all kinds of curiosities, expectations, and desires. Yours may differ from others, but that does not change the nature of this forum or my intentions in hosting it.

      I also do not think that certainty is a possible (much less a worthy) goal. 100% certainty about the biggest questions of life is not available, nor is it necessary for a life spent following Christ.

      I thank you for your continued prayers for my friend.

      January 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        I agree with Ryan that his blog and the discussion that follows from it deals with important matters. I imagine Paul does too. I think that Paul enjoys more certainty, or more moments of certainty, that “Christ is truth” than some of us do (more than me, for sure.) And so, he is ready to move forward with it.

        Certainty is wonderful to have. In rare moments, I have it too. At the Eucharist, there is nothing but certainty.

        In Eliade’s description of religious humanity, certainty has always been known and enjoyed in religious life.

        January 5, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks for the reply, Ryan. I’m so glad we agree about the importance of prayer.

        January 7, 2010

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