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Commentary

Attention and the evil within

09:04 AM April 16, 2019

During a recent Sunday Mass, a group of young girls, perhaps not even in their teens, were taking a selfie even before the priest could give the final blessing.

There they were, but they were elsewhere.

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In the same church, many years ago, I remember seeing a mother and her grown-up daughter holding hands, as the faithful are wont to do, when “The Lord’s Prayer” is being sung or said. But then their faces were somewhere else — looking down at their phones held by their other hand.

Together they were, but so far apart from each other.

There they were, but they might as well have been elsewhere.

In the past years, whenever I conducted written exams in my philosophy classes, which always consisted of just one question, and which they were to answer in the form of an essay, more and more of my students turned in their papers after a mere 10 or 15 minutes, even if they had the entire period of either an hour or an hour-and-a-half to carefully craft essays that they could be proud of.

But it seemed they couldn’t care less, and would turn in their papers just the same, even if all that they had managed to write was no more than two or three paragraphs that hardly engaged the matter at hand, sincerely and seriously. When I asked them why they did not use the whole period, they simply said there was really nothing more they could think of or write about. Then they walked out of the room, and you wondered what they were really in a rush to do.

I cannot but suspect that these incidents are symptomatic of our time, marked as it is by our inability to linger, to tarry, to dwell on the matter at hand, to devote our attention to something that bids us to think, that invites us to engage in it with our whole being.

It is not really technology itself that is the problem, I suspect. It seems technology is merely a cover for our lack of courage to confront the restlessness within, or the boredom that is at bottom an invitation to transcend ourselves each time.

Simone Weil said that the sole purpose of studies is the development of the faculty of attention. It is the same attention that we exercise in prayer — or perhaps for those who do not believe in God, in our moments of reflection on things we hold sacred, things that are beyond our selves.

Weil also said that whatever it is in us that feels repelled by intellectual work is much more connected with evil than our avoidance of manual work. Thus, every time we exercise our faculty of attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.

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Could it be that behind all the hatred of our fellow human beings, behind all the violence we inflict on others, behind all the wars we wage that ravage the earth, behind all the destruction of our environment and our world—could it be that behind all these is our inability to exercise, if not our refusal to exercise, our faculty of attention?

Think of every great human being that ever lived on this earth, and you can be sure they exercised their faculty of attention to the highest degree. When Jesus was surrounded by a throng of people, He still managed to sense someone touching the hem of His cloak, a woman who was suffering from hemorrhage. “Who touched me?” He asked, and His disciples thought it was a foolish thing to ask. Unable to ignore the faith of the woman, Jesus turned around and healed her.

In contrast, think of any human being who had inflicted so much suffering on others, and you can be sure he thoroughly lacked the capacity for attention, and completely ignored the humanity of those right in front of him.

Does not respect (from the Latin specere, “to look”) for others, as well as for our environment, mean, quite literally, to look back, to look again—that is to say, to devote our attention to others and the world around us? In turn, does not attention (from the Latin tendere, “to stretch”) mean, quite literally, to stretch our hands, to reach out to others, to what lies before us?

We need not be anything other than who we already are.

We need not go anywhere, but simply dwell in the very place where we already are.

Alas, becoming who we already are and dwelling where we already are—these are the hardest things to “do,” and the very ones we have yet to learn.

* * *

Remmon E. Barbaza is associate professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University.

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