Holy attention

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about attention.

Lately it feels like everything is scrambling for my attention. Unread emails. Missed text messages. Facebook notifications. Shows to watch. Articles to read. New podcasts to play. The pull of infinite content, waiting to be consumed.

Do you feel it too?

We have work to do, bills to pay, children to raise, relationships to nourish, bodies to feed/exercise/clothe/rest. We belong to faith communities and organizations and gyms. We have second jobs and side hustles and volunteer gigs. Lunch dates, dinner dates, brunch with friends. Never stopping. Never slowing. Go. Go. Go.

Our lives are full. Our attention—limited. We feel overwhelmed.

I have this theory about attention. It’s kind of like water from a well. The well is deep and expansive, filled with cool, refreshing water we can share with others. On good days, we share water generously and have plenty left to nourish myself. Sometimes we hoard water, and we become bloated. Sometimes we waste water and only have a little left for ourselves. If we’re not careful, the well can run dry.

In this moment in time, I believe we’re all thirsty for something better. We are all parched.

So what do we do? How do we fill up our well?

First, we need to examine what true attention really is. Ever been in a really good conversation with someone where it felt as though you were really seen and heard? They allowed you to talk as much as you needed without feeling ashamed or embarrassed, nodded their head at all the right times and asked engaging questions. Didn’t that just make you feel warm, cozy and joyful?

My late grandpa was a lot like that–an attentive, compassionate listener. If he engaged you in conversation–and chances are certain that if you looked like you needed company he would–he’d give you his undivided attention, nodding his head and asking questions.

My grandma told me recently that often when new members of their congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, were asked why they joined, most had the same answer. (No, it wasn’t Jesus.) They said they came because of Richard (my grandpa). Imagine that!

I think one of the joys of my grandpa’s life was learning about others and encouraging them. He was warm, kind and generous to everyone he met.

There are a lot of things to pay attention to these days–but certainly paying attention to people seems like a good place to start.

Whatever it is that clamors for your attention, consider this: Paying attention is an act of love.

That’s what the award-winning film Lady Bird asserts in this exchange between Christine (Lady Bird), a senior at a Catholic high school, and her teacher, Sister Sarah Joan:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.

Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I do?

Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.

Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I was just describing it.

Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.

Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.

Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

Amen, sister!

This scene is wedged within tense moments between Lady Bird and her mother, who relentlessly criticizes her. We see her mother’s behavior throughout the film and notice it is a demonstration–though a harmful one–of her deep love for her only daughter. That difficult relationship comes to a head when Lady Bird’s mother finds out her daughter applied to and was accepted accepted into a college outside of Sacramento she was forbidden to attend. As punishment her mother stops talking with Lady Bird and ignores her completely.

Lady Bird’s mother vengefully rescinds her attention, her love, from her daughter and gives her the silent treatment. It is painful for Lady Bird and painful to watch.

An aside: Ever given someone the silent treatment? Ironically, this ‘punishment’ takes an incredible amount of attention to pull off–and for Lady Bird’s mother to do so for a long time indicates the depth of her disappointment and love for her daughter.

Although we never see Lady Bird and her mother reconcile, there is a moment at the end of the film when Lady Bird calls her mother and pours out her heart to her over voicemail, making me hopeful that they someday will.

I wholeheartedly agree with the writers of Lady Bird: attention is an expression of love. And I’ll add–sometimes, attention is holy.

Ever have a heart-to-heart with someone that leaves you feeling relieved and understood? Ever lock eyes with someone and feel like they saw your soul? Ever receive public or private praise for something you worked hard on—even when you thought no one was noticing? This is holy attention. This is love in action, life-giving and nourishing and focused and pure.

I have a hypothesis about our current technology-ridden context. What if we are all feeling so exhausted and scattered because we’re not being intentional with our attention? What if we’re not using it wisely?

How many of us struggle with the dance of dividing our attention, knowing we have, on occasion, failed in our relationships or commitments or even our self-care simply because we feel as though there isn’t enough time?

Here’s the hard truth: Our attention has limits.

We’re only human after all.

If I do a time audit of my day, what might I find about my attention? I think I would be surprised to find the amount of attention I waste on social media–on my phone–rather than noticing the world around me. I want to spend more time cultivating relationships, including the most important relationships–with God and family and myself.

So how do we start living in away that honors what we really love?

We remember attention is holy.

We understand attention is a gift.

But here’s the secret: there is a way to deepen your reserves of attention. And that means giving that holy attention right back to yourself. Nourishing yourself with water from your well.

Listening to the voice inside of you that declares: THIS is what makes me happy. THIS is what I really want and need to do today.

I have this nagging pain, can you heal it?

I have this burning desire to dance, will you let me?

I am feeling stuck, can you help me get unstuck?

Will you pay attention?

Here is a new definition of self-love for you. It’s not getting a pedicure, taking a bubble bath or winding down with a glass of wine–though any of those things are justifiably nice. Self-love is paying attention to the voice inside you that is wild and free, and really listening to it, and seeking to align your actions with your innermost healthy desires.

When we give ourselves the kind of holy attention we crave from others, imitating the kind of holy attention only God can give us–pure, adoring love–it is easier for us to then share our attention with others.

I think about the way, as a mother and on my good days, I give holy attention to my son. How can I give more of that away to people who matter (and less to social media, to my worries)—including me? How can I spend holy time and attention immersed in prayer?

Notice–without judgment–where you spend your time this week. How can you redirect it so that you are giving holy attention to yourself–and to everyone and thing that matters most to you?

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