Attention, Please: Attentiveness and Vocation

At the 2021 NetVUE UnConference, Willie James Jennings spoke of attention, or attentiveness, as fundamental to vocation, as the inner logic of calling. He advocated for cultivating students’ attentiveness to themselves, hearing their own voice, as well as of the world around them, hearing with new depth. On the following day, Paul Wadell and Charles Pinches, citing their book, Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, echoed: “The most basic calling is to pay attention.” Even more recently, Jason Stevens detailed a particular application of attentiveness within his first-year writing courses, quoting Wadell and Pinches at length.

Over the past several months, I’ve found myself coming to a similar conclusion, namely that attentiveness is more than a virtue—that it is, rather, the foundation of every vocational journey, individually and collectively. This conclusion took shape during the spring as I taught a new course exploring the impact and meaning of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism as a lead-in to exploring the broader impact and meaning of pivotal moments for our vocational journeys. Building on several readings used in this course, as well as additional sources, this post is aimed at elaborating on the critical importance of attention and suggesting corresponding applications. 

We begin with Augustine, who, in Books 10 and 11 of his Confessions, gave an early but enduring analysis of time. In short, he contended that time is an extension of our consciousness, as reflected in three functions: memory (past), attention (present), and expectation (future). Augustine suggested that even our memories of the past and our expectations for the future are images generated by our mind in the present.

This has important implications for vocation. If we succumb to dwelling on the past or living for the future without remaining aware of or attentive to the present, we become disconnected from reality. It is not only a futile endeavor; it can be harmful to our well-being. Of course, the best alternative isn’t to live one’s life moment-to-moment without any reflection on the past or any consideration of the future. On the contrary, it is often some interaction of memory, attention, and/or expectation that points us toward the ideal next step on our vocational journey. Sonali M’s recent advice for Ph.D. students is broadly relevant. She emphasizes self-knowledge through an intentional process of retrospection (“reflecting on your past”), introspection (“reflecting on your current thoughts and feelings”), and extrapolation (“estimating the unknown by applying trends of the known”).

For additional guidance on how best to focus our attention, we can turn again to Buechner’s classic definition of vocation. In order to satisfy the “world’s deep hunger,” one has to recognize the hunger in the first place. Similarly, in order to discover one’s “deep gladness,” one cannot live in a bubble with limited exposure to the outside world. Deep discoveries require deep digging. In this case, that means paying close attention to the external and the internal, simultaneously; being present, observing, listening, and hearing; experiencing the world mindfully or even aimlessly; making a note of that which is interesting, surprising, or urgent. As with Augustine’s notion of time, dwelling excessively on either the external or internal, or on a single story or perspective of the external or internal, distorts reality. Balance is key. (Catherine Knott’s remarks on rest as an imperative for vocation and social justice were particularly impactful for me, resulting in greater attention to my own internal needs.)

Vocation is, thus, the fruit of deeply focused attention, externally and internally, while imagining links to the past and to the future. If this is true, it suggests that we must frequently ask ourselves, and find novel ways to encourage our students to ask:

  • To what have I been giving my attention?
  • What is it about a particular experience that engages me–does it resonate, remind, tap into, spark, shock, stir, and/or push?
  • To what should I be directing more attention or less attention?
  • What might I be missing as a result of distractions, blind spots, or biases?
  • How might this moment connect to or diverge from the past?
  • What implications might this moment have for the future?

Perhaps this is easier said than done. I would venture to guess that most of us have experienced multiple and/or long periods during which our reality was distorted, or our foci were imbalanced. Sustaining this kind of attention has become even more difficult in the era of smart devices designed to manipulate and monetize our tendency toward distraction, as well as in an era full of uncertainty, when our aspirations can be stultified and our instincts can pull us back to what is safe and familiar. These circumstances have implications beyond individual ineptitude or lack of purpose; they are also a threat to democracy and a public health concern.

But we do not have to be helpless victims of circumstance. We can commit to and work at attentiveness. Doing so may be the key to our individual as well as our collective vocations.

Scott Mattingly serves as the Associate Dean of Academic Life at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA. As a co-creator of the university’s Exploratory Studies Program and the co-chair of the university’s working group for reviewing and revising general education, he is particularly interested in imagining and designing curricular structures that can foster vocational reflection. For an interview with Scott about his course “Pivotal Moments,” click here.

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