Simone Weil on Paying Attention

In Grace and Gravity, philosopher, theologian, and activist Simone Weil said:

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

I’ve mulled this quote over and over for some time now. It’s a profound statement in a culture distracted by screens and what’s new and novel and now. Paying attention to our spouses, partners, children, work, and souls, is a rare virtue in a culture built on distraction.

Simone Weil died young around the time of World War II. She was an activist and the quote above describes something of what she desired her life to represent. She witnessed much pain and sorrow in the throes of Nazi Germany. After seeing the unfair conditions and wages of factory workers in her town she quit her teaching job and worked in the factory. Weil at an early age stopped eating sugar because soldiers didn't have any in their rations. She did it as a move of solidarity. She was six.

I don’t know many people that would quit a cushy job and take a harsh one for paying attention to the realities of others. I don’t know how a six-year-old has that kind of awareness of the ills of society. But Weil knew something in her soul was telling her: paying attention is an act of generosity, the purest form.

Walk into an airport, doctors waiting room, or enjoy a meal at a restaurant on date night, and notice a phenomenon. People staring at their hands and not paying attention to the other humans in the room. Even the human right across the table. Paying attention is an act of generosity.

Our addiction to digital devices and obsessive scrolling looking for the next dopamine hit, and the fear of missing out. Our need to document every mundane moment of our lives is a symptom of not paying attention to others. We’re more concerned with ensuring our own lives are interesting and others know it. How about our busyness for the sake of being busy? Running from game to game, program to program, event to event, and party to party. Why?

What are we running from? Maybe dealing with our own souls. Filling every space and void of silence with noise and distraction. Paying attention is generous because it’s not about you. It’s about the other. It’s about the Divine. It’s about what's rumbling in our souls and in our culture. To not pay attention is to miss beauty and to miss an opportunity.

Our roles as mothers and fathers should be to help our children pay attention. Not pay attention in class, which is good, but rather pay attention to the beauty all around them, and evil, pain, and everything in between.

The pastor who leads and shapes a congregation and community around the things of God need to help their people pay attention. Paying attention to their souls and the distortions within. Pay attention to the glory revealed by the Creator, and the injustices and ills of our cities and world. Pastors and spiritual leaders need to help their community pay attention to one another instead of staring at their phones and living in isolation. Paying attention to their neighbors and opening their lives in acts of hospitality.

Writers, artists, poets, singers, craftsmen, and creators of things, need to help people pay attention by their work. Revealing the realities of life under the sun and the joys and sorrow within. Their art and their vocation is to help people pay attention.

The vocation of journalists and cultural commentators and politicians shouldn’t be to show the values of their perspective and party. They should report the news and the problems of our society objectively so people will pay attention and make choices and decisions for themselves. Instead of ranting and raving about how bad the other side is, or how bad our world is, and creating a narrative of fear. Let’s help people pay attention of how things are , and in the growing awareness of what’s happening, we might act, or not.

The fight into the future, I believe, will be one of paying attention. Helping ordinary humans pay attention to their souls, families, communities, and God. It is the purest and greatest form of generosity.

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Monday Motivation by Ryan J. Pelton