Attention

I wasn’t involved much on campus my freshman year. I devoted most of my time to an unusual class schedule (and to pouring over the course catalog whenever something set me back in my intended major), and the rest of it went to spending time with people. So when a sophomore I’d just met asked me what I did with my time, I came up short.  Finally, I offered an answer that sounded nearly apologetic: thinking of all the nights I’d sat at a table with people for hours in Saga, I told him, “I spend too long at dinner.” His response was immediate: “Oh! So you invest in people.” 

Since then, that dinner table has changed, and it is now often the dining room table at an off campus house instead of a long booth in Saga. Through cooking meals there, I’ve had an opportunity to invest in people on a larger scale, by learning and practicing the art of preparing food for a crowd. A few years ago, I still put the pasta in the water before turning on the flame. Now, through practice and mentorship and a few failures, I can (usually) comfortably cook for several dozen. For a long time, I must have considered this to be the whole art of hospitality, and while I learned much of what I know from that same friend, I held his perceptive remark about my choice to invest in people in an entirely different category. 

Turns out it’s not. Around the same time that I was investing all my energy in being able to cook food for a crowd and maintain a cherished tradition, I was noticing a trend in the books I was reading. Authors were telling me in every possible way to pay attention. Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb—the book I can thank for my newfound love of cooking—interrupts his narrative to give “the summation of [his] case for paying attention.” Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a celebration of the art of attention. The luthier Martin Schleske writes in The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty that “our role is to simply learn to pay attention.” I could name more, but it’s clear that I was well aware of the need to be attentive to things—and as someone who once had the nickname “Christine E. Mitchell, N.P.A.,” short for “not paying attention,” I was convicted. But I remembered a different conversation I’d had when I was feeling inadequate in having any particular skill: the friend I was speaking to looked me in the eye and told me that I pay attention to people and that’s what helps me to love them well. 

But what does this have to do with hospitality? Last spring, the night before classes started, I opened my new copy of French philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien’s book The Ark of Speech. It did not begin with anything on the notion of speech. Rather, in the very introduction of the book, he opens with hospitality, both the subject and very act of it, by asking three questions: “How far does our hospitality go? How far can it go? What can we welcome and gather in, and how?” In asking questions rather than making statements, he offers hospitality himself. He also does not answer these questions immediately. Rather, he answers with a different proposition: “Hospitality is, first and foremost, the hospitality that we give each other, exchanging words and silences, glances and voices.” Amidst my newfound excitement for cooking lots of curry, here was a proposition of a different, humbler form of hospitality, one that I needed to learn before anything else. 

This notion continues in the first chapter, Making his argument more specific, and moving towards a more concrete connection with speech, Chrétien writes that “the first hospitality is none other than listening.” He goes on, saying, 

It is the hospitality that we can grant to others, with our body and our soul, even out on the streets and on the roadside, when we would not be able to offer a roof, or warmth or food. And it is at any instant that this hospitality can be granted. Of all other forms of hospitality it is the precondition, for bitter is the bread that is eaten without speech having been exchanged, heavy and burdensome is the insomnia of the beds in which we sleep without our weariness having been welcomed and respected.

I have heard attention called a loving listening. Chrétien’s words on listening are words on paying attention to another person and the hospitality that one can offer in that act. The precursor to offering food, drink, or shelter in a display of hospitality is offering listening, or attention, itself—for, as Chrétien is saying, what is the use of these if the person receiving them is not welcomed and respected? Indeed, this hospitality of listening can be offered whether or not it is accompanied by food or shelter. I can show hospitality to any person I am with simply by offering him my attention, and this must always come first. 

    Simone Weil writes something similar in her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” While this essay covers many forms of attention, including attention in prayer and in work, I want to focus on a later point: that of attention to another person. Turning from God to the images of God, she writes, “Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbour, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance.” Look into the face of your neighbor, see the cross of Christ, and offer him your love and attention. 

    Weil sees this form of attention as a necessity and a sacrifice that is hard to find:

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

A capacity for attention is uncommon, as so many of those authors I listed earlier said, but a capacity for true attention to another person—a suffering person, at that—is, as she says, a miracle. But she does not leave this act a mystery left to those only gifted with some hidden interpersonal knowledge. Like the hospitality shown in the offering of food and shelter, the hospitality of attention can be practiced and learned. 

Weil put this into one simple question that we ought to be able to ask of others: “What are you going through?” Being able to ask this question of a neighbor demonstrates love for that neighbor, and shows him a hospitality that can hold the same significance that a meal can. Furthermore, such hospitality can be shown even in a look, as Chrétien also said. Weil writes that the ability to ask “What are you going through?” also leads to a way of looking: 

It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way. This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

This kenosis, this emptying, is what allows listening. The soul “empt[ying] itself of all its own preoccupations” is what prepares room for one to offer the other hospitality. 

    It is in listening, in true attentiveness to the person across from us, that we practice and offer our first and foundational hospitality. Even if you’re not cooking for all your friends, practice hospitality. Empty yourself of your preoccupations and opinions (lest you risk idolatry), look the person across from you in the eye and listen to them. Listen to them not as you think they’re going to speak, or according to who you think they are, but as they truly are and truly speak.  And if you are throwing grand dinner parties, be warned: hospitality doesn’t work on a grand scale until you can pay attention to the person before you and have learned to be attentive to his needs. Practice a common, humble hospitality of listening no matter who you are with, and offer up your love and service with your capacity for attention. Let that be your foundation; hospitality and even friendship are nothing without attention to the person himself. 

Christine is a senior studying English and chemistry.

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