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Attention is deep hunger in all of us


I paid attention to the sausages this morning. Tended each one individually, rolling it carefully onto the white side strip and gently supporting with the spatula until the grease sizzled it as all-over brown as a nudist in the tropics. Usually I plunk the links into the frying pan and abandon them, desperate to smell coffee. But this was one of those graced, unhurried mornings when I’d slept well and loved the world. So as the sun streamed into our black-and-white ’40s kitchen, I took -- reclaimed -- my time.

Most days, I forget that such serenity is possible. I tear through the daily chores propelled by the beep of the microwave, the buzz of the timer, the hiss of the waiting iron. Yet when I do slow down, I catch the present-tense rhythm of these simple tasks, and what was drudgery becomes a chance to pay attention to what sustains us.

“Attention is love,” writes poet Marge Piercy. We know this when we hear a teary friend on the answering machine and cancel our plans for the evening. We know it with the 100th “Watch this!” as our daughter learns to dive. Animals, plants, children, husbands -- they all thrive on attention.

Modern life drains it. It pulls us a million directions, expecting us to be tuned in, plugged in, cordlessly connected to everything and as a result, incapable of paying close, quiet attention to anything. We look for services we can buy; meals we can microwave; machines that operate while we’re doing something else.

Meanwhile, we argue about the number of children with attention deficit disorder -- a cognitive pattern that’s existed forever but has become far more problematic because we’re placing our kids in a crowded, hyperstimulating world without enough attention from anybody and asking them to focus. The cause seems to be biological. Medicine does help, so does therapy and adjusting the environment. But what also helps is attention itself. These children seem to do better when someone is right at their side or when they have a teacher’s undivided attention. One-on-one, steady guidance and praise, an influx of mental energy that works like an outstretched hand, helping the child jump across the neural gaps without slipping.

Attention is a deep hunger in all of us, one we learn to mock as we “mature.” We laugh at the little kids dancing to show off, the salesmen swinging from chandeliers, the old folk telling their progressively taller tales. But isn’t humanity’s need for attention the appeal of a personal God? Isn’t that what we mean when we say God sees each sparrow fall, clothes each lily, knows each human person intimately and makes a place for her in God’s heart?

If someone is paying attention to us, we know we must be worth attending to. If we are the fruit of God’s creation and the recipients of God’s glorious gaze, we need not fear the future. Freed of skittering doubts, we can focus long enough to pay attention to someone else.

And that, after all, is how love travels.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999