Paying Attention in a World Full of Distractions

By Timothy Brown, S.J.

Education is not mere training. You go to school not for knowledge alone but to develop good habits: the habit of expression, the habit of attention, even the habit of being. Developing these habits of virtue is a full-time task, not to be restricted to a required course or two in ethics or values. It requires time and effort, practice and concentration, both inside and outside the classroom. Character is formed by practicing the habit of making good choices. Such habits of the mind and heart are crucial for an effective Jesuit mission and reflect the inspiration of the original Jesuits when they shaped the first Jesuit colleges in the 16th century.

The habit I have found most essential in teaching ethics is the practice of paying attention. Simone Weil’s autobiography, Waiting for God, contains an essay entitled “Reflections on the Right School Studies with a View of the Love of God.” Here Weil speaks of the development of the faculty of attention as the sole interest and real object of school studies pursued with a view to the love of God.

Weil views attention as a kind of waiting and watching, a condition of suspended thought. The point of attending is to be open to receive truth. The habit of paying attention is essential in making ethical decisions. The stress is on attention because prayer consists in just that — attention. Weil’s point is that no matter what you are learning and for whatever purpose, the time and effort spent working is not wasted because the result will one day be discovered in prayer.

But that is not all. She adds, “Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer (to someone in need) is very rare and difficult – almost a miracle, and nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. To give this kind of attention means being able to say to our neighbor: ‘what are you going through?’ And isn’t that the essence of developing habits of good character? To be able to pay attention to another and ask, ‘What are you about?’” (Waiting for God, p. 115).

Photo featured courtesy of  Rawdonfox of the Flickr Creative Commons .

Photo featured courtesy of Rawdonfox of the Flickr Creative Commons.

I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy, we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
— Frantz Kafka

Developing one’s moral imagination goes hand in hand with developing the ability to pay attention – to make good decisions – to find meaning in what one does. The gift of imagination allows us to see things that we sometimes miss because of our limited attention spans. Through service programs in our schools with people who are materially poor, many students have begun to develop a particular vision of how the world could be re-imagined. To reformulate their vision, many students have had to let go of preconceived notions of how people think, act, and live out their lives. I have seen scores of students forced to suspend past notions and impressions of the people with whom they are working; they have come to see the world more deeply. They have come back to Loyola stunned, sometimes confused, oftentimes without the words to express their frustrations. With stories, metaphors, vision, and prayerful, contemplative reflection on service, imagination can offer another kind of resource – a moral resource.

The art of reading and rereading creatively puzzles together the words on the page. To take all the scattered pieces of information and imagery, metaphors and poetry – to put the pieces of the puzzle together – is the great contemplative moment. To organize all these pieces of information, data, detailed accounts, descriptions into patterns and shapes and figures in a slow, methodical way is Jesuit education at its best. To connect the core – philosophy to history, literature to theology and all the social sciences in between – is an artistic practice. It opens the mind to wonder and imagination and inquiry – all aspects of Jesuit pedagogy.

In the long run, I tell my classes to pay attention to their consciences, to that still small voice that tells us “this is right and this is wrong.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem, instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” It takes moral courage to pass that dragon by. Teaching that is our mission in education. And that mission is possible.

Timothy Brown, S.J. is special assistant for the Office of Mission Integration and professor of law and social responsibility at Loyola University Maryland. He has served as the provincial of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.