In a movie that I have forgotten most of, there is a line that I think about all the time: “Don’t you think maybe those are the same thing: love and attention?”
While I do not think there is a simple equivalence between the two terms, I think this idea might be the most simple, profound and practical first step to how to love that I have ever heard. To love someone well, you have to pay attention to them. Whatever your primary love language is (words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, gift giving or acts of service), it has to start with paying attention to the person you love — to understand who they are, what they need, what brings them joy, what’s going on in their lives, etc. Paying attention is the first step to active love.
Having been on the receiving end of love that actively pays attention to me, I can attest to the fact that it is freeing, empowering and beautiful. While it can be a vulnerable thing to be truly seen, those friends have proved to me the truth that I am worthy of their love, not by earning it in any way, but simply because of who I am. Created by love, in love and for love, we have a profound desire to be loved (to be paid attention to), and it is fundamental to the way that God made us. Only God can satisfy that deep well of desire, and many of us have been deprived of human love in ways that have damaged us and made us desperate — ready to grasp at love (attention) in any way that we can. While that compulsion can be frustrating and even problematic, remembering what the desire is for and who created it in the first place may help us learn patience and compassion both for ourselves and others.
Remembering what that desire is for can also help redirect our efforts from grasping at attention toward paying attention well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has an excellent TED talk (look it up on YouTube or your podcast app) about the difference between paying attention and receiving attention. While his talk is more about how these things apply to creativity, there is a great deal of truth to be taken from what he says. He speaks of the peace and joy that come with being able to give your attention fully to something you care about, and how it is the antidote to the addictive quest to gather as much attention as possible.
He also speaks about why this is one of the primary dangers of social media. Because the monetization of social media is through ads, the way the business thrives is by more and more efficiently claiming and holding our attention. And the design is extraordinarily good at what it’s made for. With powerful forces competing for and monetizing our attention, it is important to find ways to bring our attention back to what we care about. While this is something each person must discern and navigate for themselves, a few practical suggestions might help to get you going.
- Ask people questions. The more that social interactions are digitized, the less we will be comfortable socializing in person. Some things, however, will never change. People like being cared about, and even simple questions can initiate a moment of genuine, human connection.
- Find a creative outlet. Write poetry, paint a simple landscape, take a dance class, do something creative — but don’t worry about the outcome. Simply give your full attention to making something.
- When using screens, choose something you actually want to do. This might sound painfully simple, but we all know what it’s like to realize half an hour has gone down the drain in mindless scrolling that was not that interesting to begin with. So, choose something you actually want to do, especially if it takes a little more attention. For instance, if you find yourself scrolling on social media, maybe switch to watching a show you like. If you find yourself binge-watching a show, maybe switch to a movie instead.
As the world hovers on the cusp of the metaverse (Facebook’s plan for a Virtual Reality world), now is the perfect time to reflect on where we are spending our attention. This precious measure of our love is already commodified and competed for, and those strategies for commanding our attention will only become more effective and more efficient. This is the perfect time to take stock of how our attention is being spent, and take steps and make strategies to keep it directed toward what we truly love.