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The Gift of Attention


Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Simone Weil

In the 1994 film Ladybird, the protagonist pays a lot of attention to Sacramento.

“You clearly love Sacramento,” says the Catholic nun and high school principal as she looks over the college essay written by one of her students. The teenager, who clearly can’t wait to get away from the place, shrugs and says she just pays attention to her surroundings.

Well, it comes across as love,” says the nun. “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing, love and attention?

Paying attention to another person facilitates empathy. Most of us recognise how detrimental the influence of the internet has been on our ability to pay attention. A lot is written about social media and the way we have become like magpies, attracted by collecting shiny things rather than the deep, focused attention needed to address some of the complex problems of modern life. Whilst watching Ken Loach’s film ‘The Old Oak’, I was struck by how Yara used her camera to choose what she attended to. Through this, she came to love the lonely pub landlord and became open to her new community. We can choose what we give attention, unless we surrender that power allowing algorithms and social media dictate how we use our time.

  Paying attention means opening ourselves to the unexpected. Simone Weil was right to highlight the generosity involved in giving away our precious time to another. If we really pay attention, then we are affected by others. In Ladybird, the nun reframed the teenager’s view of Sacramento. Up to that point all she knew was that she hated her home. Love and hate were intertwined as they often are and hard to disentangle. Only on the point of leaving her home, could she see the attention she paid to her surroundings as a form of love.

Cole Morton’s recent book “Everything is Extraordinary” highlights how important this attitude towards paying attention to each other and every moment.

‘Clive James raged against the dying of the light, as you would expect from a man who had punched out prose like a prizefighter all his life; yet he also showed grace and gratitude at being allowed to stay in that light for a little while longer. He saw beauty in even the smallest things. Every moment was potentially precious, because there were so few left. As his daughter Claerwen said, for him “Everything was Extraordinary.'

In therapy, someone listening to us in a focused way can be a transformational experience. It can be revelatory to have our stories heard by another who is not vying to interrupt with their own need to be heard. Therapists listen to what is being said as well as what remains unsaid, which is the mysterious part. Freud originally stated that the analyst is to listen with what he called evenly suspended attention, a kind of hovering or free floating attention . He describes this process in the following way:

“It consists simply in not directing one’s notice to anything in particular and in maintaining the same ‘evenly-suspended attention’ (as I have called it) in the face of all that one hears. In this way we spare ourselves a strain on our attention which could not in any case be kept up for several hours daily, and we avoid a danger which is inseparable from the exercise of deliberate attention. For as soon as anyone deliberately concentrates his attention to a certain degree, he begins to select from the material before him; one point will be fixed in his mind with particular clearness and some other will be correspondingly disregarded, and in making this selection he will be following his expectations or inclinations. This, however, is precisely what must not be done. In making the selection, if he follows his expectations he is in danger of never finding anything but what he already knows; and if he follows his inclinations he will certainly falsify what he may perceive. It must not be forgotten that the things one hears are for the most part things whose meaning is only recognized later on.”

(Freud,1912, Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psychoanalysis)

When we make space to focus solely on another person, we also receive because we are truly open to learning something new rather than reinforcing our old and tired preconceptions. We open a door into another world where change is truly possible.


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