A Free But Costly Generosity

“Attention is the rarest and purist form of generosity.” ~ Simone Weil

The other day, I was having a conversation with my daughter. We were chatting amicably when I interrupted both my daughter and our conversation to clarify something trivial with my husband as he walked through the kitchen. I was aware of my rudeness almost instantly, but I had already deflated, not only the conversation, but also my daughter. It is the small things that say the most about us…

How often have I myself felt the sting of dismissal when I’ve been interrupted or known the sense of feeling devalued as the person I’m talking to listens somewhat absently while scanning the room behind me? How often have I done those very same things myself?

“Attention is the rarest and purist form of generosity.” ~ Simone Weil

Paying attention to someone as they speak and not interrupting them are acts of basic politeness that are taught to us as youngsters. However, Simone Weil, French philosopher and mystic, suggests that attention is a form of generosity. That takes paying attention and not interrupting to a much deeper level. There is much that vies and clamours for our attention, so there is ample opportunity to practise generosity of this kind. And it doesn’t cost us a single red cent. It does ask of us an undivided attention and a fully present posture which can be harder to dish up than that red cent.

It seems the hardest place to practise this generous kind of attention is with those to whom we’re in closest proximity. We are busy. Those ducks are forever scuttling out of the row. We hold it together all the day long, keeping our “company manners” in working order, then get home and are boorish with those who are nearest and dearest. My love and I can be in a stretch of busyness and both be looking forward to a quiet evening of reconnecting. When we finally sit down with our cup of tea we can end up feeling irritated and short with each other. We have been at this rather close relationship thing for a long time and are still caught and baffled by how easily we can grate on each other. I think it is in this very place of rub that Simone Weil’s words, if practised, can inject life-giving breath. Sometimes we’ve managed it, other times not.

I think too that both the very old and the very young are easily brushed aside. Can I not pause and listen with attention and interest to my aged Dad as he tells a story I’ve heard before or lays out the genealogy of some remote relative who lived at such and such a farm and surely I can make the connections! and my eyes start to glaze over. Can I not stay fully engaged in my granddaughter’s world of imagination and let the tasks of the day that are pressing in on me wait? How can I bring pure and rare generosity to the unseen corners of my everyday life? Is it as simple and as hard as being fully captivated by the person in front of me?

C. S. Lewis writes about “company or party manners” in contrast with “familiar manners” in his book “The Four Loves”. “You must really give no kind of preference to yourself; at a party it is enough to conceal the preference. Hence the old proverb ‘come live with me and you’ll know me’. Hence a man’s familiar manners first reveal the true value of his .. ‘Company’ or ‘Party’ manners. Those who leave their manners behind them when they come home from the dance or the sherry party have no real courtesy even there. They were merely aping those who had.” I think we are invited to something more true and real and kind.

“Attention is the rarest and purist form of generosity.” ~ Simone Weil

As we enter the Advent season, might we be generous beyond measure and pay this kind of attention? Might we really see the person who is ringing through our groceries? Might we pay, not only our $1.65 but our undivided attention, to that soul passing our coffee through the window? Might we ignore the ping of a notification? Might we refrain from mentally formulating a reply but rather truly listen to the old, the young, the fragile, and the near and mostly dear?

My daughter graciously accepted my apology, and we resumed our conversation. But the moment has stayed with me. I have felt an invitation to slow the scurry and hurry of my mind, to let the ducks stray, to be where I am right now, and to give with a rare and pure generosity.