Letters to Peregrinus #19 - On the Discipline of Attention

Dear Peregrinus (3 PM):

Good to hear from you, and thank you for sharing with me some of what you are feeling as you have watched on the TV what they call “news” concerning which a prophet once wrote – “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NABRE) I have felt the same as you, but possibly I have been disturbed by all of this to a degree more than you let yourself be. I admit that all of this is getting to me, and I need to learn better ways to understand it and to handle it. So, you ask, how does a person handle such “news” of the world? I should be asking you, because you are handling it better than I!

First, I say this. Ought we to pay attention to these dire images on TV? And if so, then how ought we to do so, and for what purpose are these images? Does being a responsible citizen of the world demand that we look at such images?” There is a line from somewhere in a poem of Mary Oliver (b. 1935) that reads: “To pay attention / this is our endless and proper work.”[1] What exactly is the “attention” the poet judges to be our “proper work”?

It seems to me that our attention is the servant of our concerns – we attend to that which concerns us.[2] Our concerns are what we have let ourselves care about habitually, or that for which or for whom we have been taught to care. Our attention is controlled by our concerns. Think of that song from the musical South Pacific,[3] “Youʼve Got to be Carefully Taught” whose lyrics in part are:

Youʼve got to be taught before itʼs too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
Youʼve got to be carefully taught!

An early meaning of the verb “concern” (15th century)[4] is “to relate to or to belong to.” You know to whom a person belongs by paying attention to what or for whom he or she demonstrates concern. A New Testament scholar once told me that the “Beatitudes” in Matthewʼs Gospel (Matthew 5:1-12) articulate those for whom Jesus felt particular concern, and thus those to whom particularly, and preferentially, He paid attention.

To return to Mary Oliverʼs point. The “proper work” is not for us to pay attention to everything – to exercise an empty and undisciplined openness to anything. Instead, she is talking about the gaining of a discerning attention to that which our concerns cause us to notice. A capacity for focused attention on what concerns us, and to ignore what does not, is a sign of maturity. But she is also talking about the challenge to each of us that our concerns pose. That is, are our concerns worthy of us, worthy of God, and able to stand the test of the life and example of Jesus? All of this “is our endless and proper work.”

Second, it is one thing for us to be informed that there happened a mass murder in the south of France. It is a cold fact, an icy one, and as easily understood as is the word “murder”. And this fact is possibly, but by no means necessarily, important for us, who live not in France, to have reported to us in America. But it is quite another thing for the Media to publish images for us “to consume”, repeatedly looped, of mangled bodies, of blood pooled or spattered, and more darkly, of the perpetrator(s) staring out at us with vacant eyes. We do well to notice how such images are not neutral, and that they can poison our imaginations and can cultivate in us a capacity for nightmares and a taste for death.

You yourself helped me understand this point better than I had, Peregrinus. Thank you.

I am growing in the conviction that we have forgotten something important. Images are not understanding; they are that by which we may understand that which they image. But not every image is helpful in generating the insight we need. (A significant purpose of secondary education is to teach students how their intellects use images, and how images can both direct and misdirect their understanding.) So it is important that we, at least in our mind, interrogate the intentions of those, on the TV news for example, by asking: “What insight are you wanting us to have through those images?” If they do not know, then I say that we should not pay attention to them or to their images. I think of a teacher who once told the class, “Donʼt read bad books. Youʼll spend years trying to repair the damage they cause to your imagination.”

Peregrinus, you mentioned how vacuous you found news reporters who look up into the TV screen and say to us, “We warn you that some may find these images disturbing.” I think that you are right that they pretend to be responsible persons by “warning” us, and then they absolve themselves of their responsibility for the damage that they are about to effect in our imaginations. “Well, you looked!” they defensively reply. My concern is that they have images of all kinds, but have no discerning selectivity about which ones we need to be able to gain real understanding of the world. About whom or what are such people concerned, I wonder? I say that we need to think all of this through better than we have. Beware I say of images given us, but given with no understanding of what they image. Isnʼt that what pornography is – images given us but with no understanding shown us through those images of who these people really are?
Third and finally. Here is one of the most famous, and revered, paintings in the world – at least within the Christian world. It was produced in Russia around the year 1425 by Andrei Rublev, and which icon he based on his contemplation of Genesis 18K1-15. His icon is called “the Hospitality of Abraham.” For just shy of six centuries this image has resulted in profound and ever new insights into the realities imaged by Rublev. This image draws people in (as images do), but the artist is responsible for his image, knowing the understanding he wants us beholding his work to have. It is an understanding not just of the “three strangers” Abraham welcomed with his wife Sara, but something about them that Abraham eventually understood: that they were God Himself come to visit him! – “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre.” (Genesis 18:1 NABRE).

Now this is an image given us by someone who understood what images are for, and how human imagination holds such images so that they might be illumined by our searching intellect. I as a spiritual practice am spending time with this Rublev icon, noticing what happens in me when I am with it. I will then notice what happens in me when I watch the images of violence and hatred and human ugliness given us on the TV news. And then as St. Ignatius says, “I will reflect on the difference in me that I notice, and wonder about it.”

Remember me in your prayers, old friend, and please let me hear your own thoughts about this that I have written you.

Yours sincerely in Christ, the Pilgrim,

Rick, SJ


[1] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mary_oliver.html. I could not find the poem in which this line is set. I found it here.

[2] The Oxford English Dictionary online defines “to attend”: “To stretch to (still in Old French); hence, to direct the mind or observant faculties, to listen, apply oneself; to watch over, minister to, wait upon, follow, frequent; to wait for, await, expect.”

[3] A musical written by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers, the movie version of which was published in 1958.

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary online at “concern.”

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