Attention must be paid

There have been a couple of articles recently on the “slow reading” movement, one in Newsweek and one in the Guardain. Actually, “movement” may be a bit strong; it seems to be more of an impulse, or a reaction against our 24-7 ultra-connected, multitasking, information-saturated lives. (Where “we” are a relatively small minority of affluent elites, just to be clear.)

Slow reading is just what is sounds like: taking your time, really engaging with a text, not skimming or snacking on bits and pieces of information. The concerns of the slow reading movement echo those of technology writer Nicholas Carr, who in an Atlantic Monthly article from 2008 worried that Google was making us stupid. That is, re-wiring our neural circuitry to make it harder for us to pay sustained attention to a piece of writing, or an argument, or narrative. (Carr followed up his article with a book called The Shallows that has gotten a lot of attention.)

I think most of us probably sense that there’s something to this. I know that when I’m reading something online the urge to follow a link or open a new tab is almost irresistible. Rarely do I read anything of substantial length online from start to finish they way I might when reading, say, a long magazine article or a novel. It does seem to require more effort to pay attention.

If this is right, it has implications beyond reading. The ability to pay attention–to attend to some person, or thing that exists apart from (but also in relation to) us–plays a large role in the moral and spiritual life. The philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch argued that the moral life begins in the ability to appreciate something–a part of nature, a body of knowledge, a person–for its own sake, independent of any benefit it may have for us. In other words, to pay attention. Buddhism teaches that the path to liberation is learning to pay attention to reality without the distortions imposed upon it by the chattering of our minds. Christian prayer involves paying intentional attention to God–the ultimate context of Being. So, if our minds are rendered incapable of sustaining that kind of focus (and, to be fair, not everyone agrees this is happening), what happens to us as moral and spiritual agents?

2 thoughts on “Attention must be paid

  1. djeter

    Excellent point, one I try to make daily…

    “His second night in Talkingham, Hazel Motes walked along down town close to the store fronts but not looking in them. The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all of time to complete. No one was paying attention to the sky.”
    From Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

    …Mr Jeter is dedicated to paying attention to the sky and other metaphors that echo the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 when he recalls Jesus’ warning to his followers to be on the watch — a warning about expectation of the end-time, which will come upon sleeping humans like “a thief in the night” (Matthew 24:43).

    Simone Weil urges a Christian poetic that insists on educating the reader into paying attention to people and to language and to things, because the cultivation of attention directed to the other (the suffering neighbor; the created order as God intended it, or shalom; the created order as it is, broken; and God) is fundamental to the ethics of Christianity.

    One cannot love or help a person one refuses to listen to; one cannot redeem a world one doesn’t look at; one cannot serve a God one doesn’t engage with, ask questions of, listen to, study. And, as Weil points out, one cannot space out and pray, prayer demands attention. Perhaps a Christian poetic might insist on nourishing a broken faculty of the modern mind – attention.

    If you visit the stadium in New York, you may see me during long at bats for an opposing team’s batter, scanning the sky and smoothing the ground in front of my position. You might even wonder what I’m thinking about. Well, rest assured, it’s much the same as I am writing here — all part and parcel of the same thing, paying attention to the sky, alert to the next crack of the bat, anticipating the pitch.


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