Coffee Stained Minds (Essay/Reflection)

*first appeared in Ekstasis Magazine.

I remember that desk, its walnut veneer. It was just large enough to settle one’s folded elbows onto. There were three small sections forming a shelf on its rear, slots where I would place rarities: received mail, programs from events, and notecards of scribbled quotes. When I sat down and focused my attention, the room would open up as if someone let down the door of a cargo jet. As books skimmed across its veneer surface and notes were carefully scratched, I felt a wind, though dissimilar in each gust. Some were violent, others gentle and consoling. I learned to greet them all alike. This is how I learned to bring attention to texts, to ready carefully—though at the time, the only thing I attended to was my thumb-scarred Bible. I had yet to learn that this attention ought to spill out into the world, coloring our words, gesticulations, and actions with a level of care we imagine Christ demonstrated.

Nothing made me more ecstatic than the table of contents of a lengthy, magisterial book. I was sure that upon completion, I’d depart Plato’s cave. I would know the world, its depths and structures, its life and power. The table of contents was a tonic for titillation, a glimpse into something seductive. But reading was also grave labor, a holy business. It was a marriage not an affair. I recall reading the ancients, Homer in particular, hearing their invocations to the muses. Though they were ‘pagans’ in my mind, they approached the text in the same manner, with the same holy gravity.  

None would see that ruddy desk in the same way. I’d sit on a frail swiveling chair, earnestly attempting to comprehend the words before me. I learned, as I pored over those books, that earnestness—or maybe doggedness—is an essential quality of a reader. You have to wrestle with a text like Jacob with God until you are given its blessing. You have to mutter a prayer of sorts, lingering and pleading, like the woman who wanted justice in Matthew’s gospel. For myself, this consisted of copying word-for-word, endlessly, in the tiniest of scrawl. 

All things can be done piously (squinting at the page included). That is what I believed. Similar to the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, I saw piety, and faith that comes along with it, as an accompaniment—a song that always hums in the background of one’s actions. One only needs to listen carefully, graciously approaching whatever grazes one’s horizon. Reading became an act of care, understanding—a charitable attentiveness to an author like the gentle expressions of a seasoned therapist. But it wasn’t until later that I began extending this attention to other realms, realms that demanded the same level of attentive charity. 

At the time, I had no familiarity with thinkers who explored similar phenomenon from various angles. Martin Heidegger, Henri Bergson, and Simon Weil come to mind, philosophers whose labyrinthian works haunt many coffee-stained minds. They each touch upon something akin to what I am articulating—the experience of opening oneself to the page, to the ‘Other’ (to borrow Levinas’ term), or to a ‘Thou’ (in the words of Buber). Heidegger has his Lichtung (clearing), a peculiar act that allows Being or truth (aletheia) to be revealed, disclosed. Henri Bergson has his la durée (pure duration), that pure flow of time that cannot be atomized or measured. And last but not least, Simon Weil has her L’attention (attention)—the soulful discipline that may be strengthened through careful study and contemplation. Unlike the former two, I believe Weil’s attention has the most similarity to what I was learning at that ruddy desk. I also believe it has the most relevance for our current cultural, social, and technological milieu, one that has been called by Thomas H. Davenport the “attention economy”. 

In her essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, Weil writes that: “Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object.” It is a negative act, an emptying of self. But interestingly enough, it is not only a religious act or posture of the soul, it is a natural capacity that one can exercise. It can be brought to texts, to conversations, to friends, to strangers, and given Weil’s religious leanings, to God in prayer.

I don’t need to explain much about what Davenport means when he refers to the “attention economy”. The most valuable asset for any knowledge worker today is attention. It’s no longer about putting in hours or hitting quotas. We have long since passed the endless pursuit of efficiency (e.g., most of us no longer work on assembly lines). Employers are finding new ways to coddle their employees, hoping to squeeze the best ideas out of them. They want all of their workers’ attention, often leaving them cognitively starved when they leave the office. We gawk at what companies like Google and Facebook do for their employees, often forgetting that the assembly line has simply been transposed into something more humane. Our relationships are often likewise starved of Weil’s attention. It is drained into our devices or numbed by our medications, both of which repress the reality we ought to be attending-to. We’re lucky to meet the gaze of a close friend or family member, even over an intimate dinner or coffee. 

We live in a world devoid of Weil’s “higher attention”. Instead, we swim in a sea of what she calls “lower-attention”—a cheap but necessary substitute. Today we need activists of attention, those who extend attentive charity towards the ‘Other’—an attention that suspends and aims to remove prejudices, one that listens, full of care and concern—care-fully. We need activists who listen and measure their words, expressions, and actions, aiming to approximate Christ’s love for the world in their interactions. 

Today, as much as any moment in history, we have much to attend to: to texts, to communities, to neighbors, to broken families, to the vulnerable, to our history, to movements around the world, to the faces who will read what we share online, and even, to the faces concealed beneath the texts we read, whether online or in print. 

Looking in the attic and seeing that ruddy desk, now loosely held together, I’m beginning to understand what I was learning. But this form of attention is not, and should not, be confined to the dusty desks of the world. It should be released into the streets and welcomed in our homes, to greet all that is before us in our world, even locales that coffee-stained minds like myself may not be able to reach. 

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