Attention and the Good

  
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You are listening to the weekly newsletter of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville. This first week of July, we’re reflecting on one of our most precious resources, our attention. If you are not already subscribed to the newsletter we encourage you to do so. You can find a link on our website at christianstudycenter.org

One of the conditions of living in a world structured by digital media is that we are daily overwhelmed by an unremitting, uninterrupted, and relentless flood of information. Under these conditions, the capacity to rightly order our attention becomes an indispensable virtue.

Disclaimer: attention is a topic that I’ve addressed on numerous occasions, including the first talk I ever gave at the study center in 2018. So I’m hesitant about taking up the theme again, but I remain convinced that it is a topic of immense importance and one we do well to revisit with some frequency.

I won’t comment on digital distractedness or social media platforms designed for compulsive engagement or the inability to get through a block of text without checking your smartphone 16 times or endless doomscrolling, as it is now fashionable to call it, (really just a new form of the old vice acedia) or our self-loathing tweets about the same. These matter only to the degree that we believe our attention ought to be directed toward something else, that it is in these instances somehow being misdirected or squandered. Attention, like freedom, is an instrumental and penultimate good, valuable to the degree that it unites us to a higher and substantive good. Perfect attention in the abstract, just as perfect freedom in the abstract, is at best mere potentiality. They are the conditions of human flourishing rather than its fulfillment.

In his famous Kenyon College commencement address, the novelist David Foster Wallace argued that we should understand attention as constituting a form of freedom. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace claimed, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom.”

This at least gives a useful heuristic by which we might think about attention. Does it feel to you as if you are free in the deployment of your attention throughout any given day? I know that it often doesn’t feel that way to me. I frequently find myself attending to what I know I shouldn’t or unable to attend to what I should. This is not a function of external coercion, strictly speaking. I experience it chiefly as a failure of will, as a form of unfreedom stemming from a regime of conditioning to which I’ve submitted myself more or less willingly.

And I feel the loss. The loss of focus, yes. The loss of productivity, yes. But also the loss the world and the loss of some version of myself to which I aspire.

I find myself needing constantly to ask, “What is worthy of my attention?” or, better, “What is worthy of my attention given what I claim to love, what I aim to accomplish, and who I hope to become?” If by our attention we grant its object some non-trivial power over the course of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, then this may be one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves.

Several years ago, reflecting on this very matter, I wrote about the need for what I called attentional austerity. Austerity is not a warm or appealing concept, of course. But Ivan Illich can help us better frame the matter. “Austerity,” he wrote in Tools for Conviviality,

has also been degraded and has acquired a bitter taste, while for Aristotle or Aquinas it marked the foundation of friendship. In the Summa Theologica … Thomas deals with disciplined and creative playfulness. In his third response he defines “austerity” as a virtue which does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness. For Thomas “austerity” is a complementary part of a more embracing virtue, which he calls friendship or joyfulness. It is the fruit of an apprehension that things or tools could destroy rather than enhance [graceful playfulness] in personal relations.

From this perspective, then, austerity becomes a virtue in service of a greater good, a virtue we do well to recover.

But it is not only a matter of consciously ordering one’s attention toward the good, of wresting it back from an environment that has become a elaborate Skinner box, it is also the case that we would do well to cultivate a form of expectant attentiveness to what is, a form of attention that commits itself to seeing the world.

The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once observed that “In ancient China and Japan subject and object were understood not as categories of opposition but of identification.” “This is probably the source of the profoundly respectful descriptions of what surround us,” he speculated, “of flowers, trees, landscapes, for the things we can see are somehow a part of ourselves, but only by virtue of being themselves and preserving their suchness, to use a Zen Buddhist term.”

Further on in the same essay he wrote about the wonder that arises when, as he put, “contemplating a tree or a rock or a man, we suddenly comprehend that it is, even though it might not have been.” This kind of wonder is perhaps its own reward as well as the gateway to the love of wisdom as the ancient philosophers believed.

I hear in Milosz’s words an invitation, an invitation to step away from the patterns of digitally mediated reality, which while not without its modest if diminishing satisfactions, can overwhelm other modes of perception, temporality, and place.

The question of attention in the age of digital media may ultimately come down to the question of limits, the acceptance of which may be, paradoxically given modern assumptions, the condition of a more enduring and satisfying life. What digital media promises on the other hand is an experience of limitlessness exemplified by the infinite scroll. There is always more and much of it may even seem urgent and critical. But we cannot attend to it all, nor should we. I know this, of course, but I need to remind myself more frequently than I’d care to admit.

Michael Sacasas
Associate Director


Study Center Resources

Pascal’s is closed from July 27th through July 5th and will re-open on Monday, July 7th.

In next week’s Dante reading group, we will be covering cantos 22-25 of the Inferno. If you’d like to connect with group, please email Mike Sacasas at mike@christianstudycenter.org.

Be sure to check out the archive of resources available online from the study center. Classes and lectures are available at our audio archive. You can also peruse back issues of Reconsiderations here.


Recommended Reading

— Alan Jacobs’s 79 theses on attention, which will, in fact, repay your attention.

Genuinely to attend is to give of oneself with intent; it is to say: For as long as I contemplate this person, or this experience, or even this thing, I grant it a degree of dominion over me. But I will choose where my attention goes; it is in my power to grant or withhold.

Yet as soon as we think in this way, the way Simone Weil urges that we think, questions press insistently upon us: Do I really have the power to grant or withhold? If not, how might I acquire that power? And even if I possess it, on what grounds do I decide how to use it?

— Brad Littlejohn on the importance of coming to a shared apprehension of reality:

In other words, we must somehow learn to hold together passion and patience: a deep conviction that the truth matters, and that our differences on a matter so urgent are intolerable. And at the same time we must be willing to wait—to wait on the world for more clarity about what is actually going on, to wait on our friends through the long months and years it can take to come to a common mind, and to wait on the Lord for the strength to endure it all. For it will be painful—both passion and patience come from the same root meaning “to suffer.” 

— Ten years after publishing The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr talks to Ezra Klein about the book and its enduring relevance.