I used to live near a sprawling park with lumpy hills, clusters of trees and a puddle-for-a-pond. My wife and I had walked through that park a hundred times with our dog who pranced along carrying her prized frisbee. We would walk to enjoy a break from the chaos, our phones, and the noise of life. We knew every turn along the pathway and could walk through the park blindfolded. Or so we thought.
One afternoon we were walking through the park and we both turned to find a large soccer net. Really just the metal frame, but no less substantial. Was this here before? We couldn’t recall. Where did it come from? We were mystified, and then we started to laugh. How could we miss this? We must have looked foolish as we gawked from a distance, then examined these posts close up. Surely these were just put in! Rust, old concrete, and weeds told a different story. These soccer nets had been there for years. We were just not paying attention.
I often don’t pay attention because I’m tired, overworked, lazy, or a bit of all three. Yet, ’paying attention’ is based on the view that our attention is limited. We only have so much to give. I pay attention to my boss, my emails, my family, and my kids, but after all of that ‘paying’ we find ourselves empty. So at the end of the day, or on the weekend, we are spent. No more ‘paying attention’ because we feel there is simply nothing left to give.
There is another way to understand attention. Attention is not a limited resource, but rather the way our lives are connected to the world outside of us. It is a doorway, a window, or a conduit that connects us. Attention is not something we pay, but a posture of exploration and curiosity. Our attention helps us step out of our head space and into a moving and growing world of discovery right before us. Attention-as-experience, according to Dan Nixon, is better than attention-as-utility. When we view attention as something to be used up, we miss out on accessing a wellspring of life and hope.
All around us we are faced with a wall of noise calling for us to use up our limited attention. So we turn to our phones or another screen and park our attention there for a moment. However, when we view our attention as a door to exploration and discovery, we find that those screens calling for our attention are often vapid and hollow. We need more, so our attention beckons us to go looking for more.
Those who learn to allow their attention to be a doorway to new experiences and discoveries start to find their attention leading them into new and wonderful places. Suddenly boring places such as our neighbourhoods become fascinating again. Small talk with neighbours become moments that spark our curiosity. Volunteerism, back yard projects, faith, friendship, family, and generosity all begin to take on new places in our life.
‘Paying attention’ and spending it all will leave us exhausted. We will miss so many of the amazing things that our attention should be revealing to us. May we become those who refuse to pay-attention, but rather explore and experience our lives with the gift that attention brings. May we be surprised and curious, expectant and present to all that God might be showing us. When we open the door of our attention to those around us, we set ourselves and others up for new hope, goodness, life, and love. Attention was not made to hoard, it is a gift that won’t run out.