“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”, so wrote Simone Weil the French mystic and philosopher in a text called ‘Gravity and Grace’, compiled after her death in 1943. In the text she argues that attention is superior to human will in terms of transforming or developing the self. I was only recently introduced to Weil’s writing at a conference for Church of England Secondary School headteachers, so I cannot claim expertise in any sense whatsoever, however the quotation above captured my interest and resonated strongly with some other ideas that have been buzzing in my head.
Above all, I am interested in the idea that paying attention is something which a subject does to an object and what follows from that. The relationship between subject and object then, in Weil’s argument, develops and improves the subject. Weil contrasts attention with human will, she writes: “The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them”.
For Christians Weil’s term ‘attention’ is surely an expression of love, the love whose archetype is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
So how is any of this relevant to the lives and preoccupations of the children and staff at Bennett Memorial School you may be wondering? Like many people involved in education and indeed other parents, I have become increasingly concerned about the apparent increase in the incidence of young people experiencing problems with their mental health. Whilst I know that the factors causing this are complex and deeply rooted in our society, nonetheless I do think that there is a growing evidence that the use of social media by young people is contributing to the problem. A 2017 study by the Royal Society of Public Health questioned some 1,500 young people aged 11-25, finding that 70% of respondents said that Instagram made them feel worse about their body image. This study has led Shirley Cramer the chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health to conclude: “Social media has become a space in which we form and build relationships, shape self-identity, express ourselves and learn about the world around us; it is intrinsically linked to mental health.”
It seems to me that the transactions that we engage in in our use of social media often lack what Weil calls ‘attention’. The shallowness of a ‘like’ is betrayed by the fact that we are concerned about the number of ‘likes’, not the quality. ‘Friend’ in Facebook and social media terms means something profoundly different. This is certainly not to say that good cannot come out of our relationships conducted through social media, but rather that we need to consider what we say and read there through the lens of Weil’s ‘attention’. It is a place where we can learn to pay attention.
At Bennett we attempt to teach children to pay attention. That is to say that we endeavour to show our students the importance of concerning themselves deeply with one another and indeed with the world beyond their immediate community. Learning to pay attention comes in the form of working together to make more than 1000 shoeboxes to send out at Christmas. It comes from committing yourself to your Duke of Edinburgh Award Bronze expedition team so that you encourage one another over the last muddy mile. We teach it explicitly in lessons about social relationships. We teach it in Religious Education lessons, where children learn a literacy about belief and practice which is shared across communities. Perhaps most powerfully we model it when we come together to worship in the Eucharist. Here our students are invited to listen to one another as they sing and pray, hear Scripture and share a meal; a meal which itself re-presents Christ’s supreme example of attention.