ATTENTIVENESS: Can We Learn To Be Attentive? by Leighton Ford

Discerning God’s Presence in All Things

Can We Learn To Be Attentive? by Leighton Ford

From The Attentive Life

Some people seem to be born with a special “attentiveness quotient.”  Great athletes are gifted in this way.  Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest baseball hitter of all time, was immensely endowed with athletic vision.  He allowed that hitting a baseball is the single most difficult thing to do in sports.  Yet at the height of his career with the Boston Red Sox, his eyesight was so legendary that it was claimed he could see the seams on a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball!  Some physicists who have studied batting pooh-pooh this, saying it is impossible.  Yet one sportswriter said that trying to get a fastball past Ted Williams was “like trying to get a sunbeam past a rooster.”

Take another fabled figure, the mathematician John Nash.  By the age of thirty he had become a legend for his mathematical genius.  Then, as Sylvia Nasar relates in her biography of Nash, A Beautiful Mind, he had the first shattering episode of paranoid schizophrenia.  For the next three decades he suffered from delusions and hallucinations, and because of this “cancer of the mind” he was often hospitalized and unable to cope with his life or focus on his work.  Yet, amazingly, years later he recovered and won a Nobel Prize and international fame.

Nash’s genius in part lay in his uncanny ability to concentrate.  He was “always buried in thought, always thinking,” as a university contemporary remembers.  “If he was lying on a table, it was because he was thinking.  Just thinking.”  Yet his focus was not on reading books, and nobody seemed to remember seeing him with a book during his graduate days.  Instead he quizzed others, made constant notes and thought.  He was able to formulate his groundbreaking theorems because while other mathematicians could focus on a problem for days at a time, Nash could do so for months.

Clearly there are those gifted with a surpassing ability to focus.  But what about the rest of us ordinary mortals?

There is no such thing for us humans as complete attentiveness.  In part this is because each of us attends to different things.  Our daughter Debbie, who is trained in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, describes a morning she spent with Jeanie and me in Florida.  Having recently begun to draw and pain, I had been reading a book in which the art historian Sister Wendy Beckett reflects on abstract contemporary art and brought it to show to Jeanie and Debbie.

“Mom was totally absorbed in the alligators and the birds and the trees,” she laughs, “while Dad was excited about an abstract painting in a devotional book he was reading.  She was being herself – a classic Myers-Briggs S type who is aware of what is around her, while Dad was the classic N intuiting what the painting was doing inside him.”

Debbie explained that the S or “sensing” individual is very aware of what is seen with one’s eyes – of sensory reality and details – while the N or “intuitive” person pays attention more easily to what is “unseen” – to patterns and possibilities, insight and symbolism.  So both Jeanie and I were paying attention – but to different things.

Yet while our preferences may differ, the call to all of us is to see God in all things, and all things in God.  What a demanding call!

In a book on the nature of seeing, James Elkins writes,

At first, it appears that nothing could be easier than seeing.  We just point our eyes where we want them to go, and gather in whatever there is to see.  Nothing could be less in need of explanation.  The truth is more difficult: seeing is irrational, inconsistent, and undependable.  Our eyes are not ours to command; they roam where they will and then tell us they have only been where we have sent them.  No matter how hard we look, we see very little of what we look at.  Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer.  Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism.

Perhaps by now you are wondering: If seeing and paying attention is so complex and difficult, why bother with it?  Is there not some easier way?

Consider again Elkins’s words: “Seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer.  Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism.”  These words lift my hopes.  They remind me of the words of Paul that there may be “veils” that hide us from God, yet “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit,” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18).

See!  Attention is indeed metamorphosis, not mechanism; freedom, not legalism; the creation of the Lord the Spirit, not of our own half-hearted efforts; the promise that there will be glory – for “all of us,” not just a few specially gifted spiritual masters.

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