It is said that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. I recently heard someone say, our mouths close; our ears don’t. Think about that one for a second.
There is a type of generosity that costs nothing materially but takes supreme effort in our distracted-to-death culture: the generosity of attention.
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” –Simone Weil
Why do we say, “Pay attention”?
Attention costs us something.
Attention costs us something. We must work to keep our minds focused on the person (or task) before us. We must choose to ignore distractions. We must invest in the ideas of the other person. We are most certainly paying—not with money but with time and effort.
“True listening is an active discipline.” -Gary Thomas, Sacred Parenting, 59.
Just like we drop a dollar in the instrument case of the guy on the street corner, just like we tip our waiter even though she forgot who had the diet soda, we give from what is valuable to us (in this case, our time and focus) to bless another. (See Generosity is Openhanded.) That’s generosity of attention.
Much of our generous attention will be taken up in listening, but there are two other elements to this generosity, and those will require our words.
Generosity of attention goes beyond active listening. We can share the emotions and burdens of the person in front of us. Paul said it to the Corinthian believers:
If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. –2 Corinthians 1:6
Because we have been comforted (in the past), we can join another’s distress (in the present) and bring that same comfort into their current situation.
Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another (dictionary.com). This is feeling sorry with someone.
Not to be confused with…
Sympathy: the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions (dictionary.com). This is feeling sorry for someone.
Empathy takes practice.
Some people do it naturally, but for many of us, empathy takes practice. Concentrate on what the person is feeling and imagine yourself feeling the same.
Our generosity of attention will also include encouragement. We can affirm good decisions and highlight godly attitudes we see/hear in the other person. We can “build others up,” as Paul says in Ephesians.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. –Ephesians 4:29
By listening well, with a generous application of empathy and encouragement, we model the generosity of God, who loves us and knows us individually and personally.
I’m choosing this month to bring my full attention to what or who is before me, from setting my phone behind me while I write this piece, to turning off the TV for a much-needed conversation with my husband, to sitting around the table with my neighbors for a meal. I’ll try to do more than concentrate. I’ll try to put myself in their shoes and point out any godliness or progress I see in them.
How will you practice generosity of attention this month? What challenges you in this post? What wisdom can you add to the conversation? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
If you’re comfortable reading outside Christian circles, the humanist Erich Fromm, a philosopher and psychologist, made some spot-on observations regarding the practice of, in his words, “the art of unselfish understanding.” Find the BrainPickings article here.