Happy New Year, dear readers!
I for one am glad to see the calendar change. When I was younger I was indifferent to the changing years, but here at midlife I have come to experience, despite all the cynicism I can muster, which is a lot, a kind of strange hope when 1 January rolls around.
My hope for 2013 is twofold: fewer distractions and a more deliberate life.
My search for stable employment continues. My approach in 2012 was to push hard on every door and wait breathlessly to see what would happen. When nothing did I’d push again and again hold my breath. A few cycles like this exhausted me. My professional expectations have been nothing but anxiety-provoking and they have diverted my attention from actual life, which holds for no one.
Case in point: In September my dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma. He has gone through chemotherapy continuously since then. Later this month he will undergo a stem cell transplant. His prognosis is good, but this is a major procedure. Its effects on his immune system will be severe and will last for months.
All this has left me a bit unhinged.
But there’s truth in the cliché that crises can wake us up. These circumstances and others have led me to conclude that too much of my life has been centered on trivia. My constant tracking of certain news-blog-Facebook-tweet cycles is just one of several examples I might mention. It’s on my laptop, my office computer, the iPad, my phone, my TV. It’s hyperactive and nonstop. And it goes exactly nowhere. Over the last few months I’ve become aware of how badly FOMO (fear of missing out) has jangled my nerves. It has left me unable to pay attention to any one idea, and to any one person.
So this year I hope to relearn how to pay attention.
Perhaps that’s why I have recently re-read a certain pair of short books: Isaac Newton by James Gleick and Waiting for God by Simone Weil. Newton and Weil make an interesting pair: One a genius of science, the other of the spirit. You would want neither at your dinner party: Newton wouldn’t say a word — in fact, he would probably hide somewhere — and Weil would spend the evening matter-of-factly challenging everyone’s assumptions about everything (not out of a desire to upset people; it’s who she was). Neither sought fame: Newton was only pulled out of his shell by larger circumstances and Weil was an unknown quantity until shortly after her death in 1943. They focused on different aspects of reality: Newton on mathematics and the mystery of motion; Weil on the lives and sufferings of her fellows.
But they focused, and that’s the point. They had the capacity to filter out noise and pay attention.
Newton would pay attention to a single idea for long periods of time: days, weeks, months, years. Writes Gleick,
Newton’s patience was limitless. Truth, he said much later, was the “offspring of silence and meditation.” And he said: “I keep the subject constantly before me and wait ’till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
He did one thing at a time, whether it was physics, alchemy, or theology. Whatever it was he was doing, he was attending to it.
Weil’s idea of attention is subtle and theologically oriented. She writes that paying true attention to anything — even a problem of physics, say — develops the capacity to see and know others (and God too, but that’s for another day). The idea is to hold the object of one’s attention at a (short) distance from other thoughts that threaten to crowd it out:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all, our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.
This is true whether the object of attention is a proposition in physics or a homeless man by the off-ramp.
In other words, when encountering any idea or person, I might try to resist my powerful urge to classify, contextualize, and connect: “Oh, that’s a statement of momentum conservation”; “He should get a job.” No: what I have here is that equation; what I have here is that human being. Suppress for a moment the interpretive reflex. That way I might at least see something real and keep it from being lost in the hyperactivity and nonsense that so threatens my peace of mind.
There is no promise of employment; nor do I have any control over my dad’s health. But maybe I can wake up a little.
My prayer for 2013 is that I will learn to think and act deliberately; that is, with attention. This means saying no: not reaching for my phone to assuage my anxiety, not spending time reading blogs and news sites that only frustrate me, not googling when I could just wonder, not fantasizing about professional “success.”
The truth is, my family and I have a promising year ahead of us. We have lots of new challenges and opportunities. And I’m grateful for that, just as I am grateful for each of you, dear readers.
Here’s to a joyous 2013 for you and yours!