I often assign Simone Weil’s short essay “The Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” at the beginning of terms because she teaches so much through it. If she were talking to Americans today, she might say something like this:
You have forgotten to ask each other the only question that really matters: “What are you going through?” From this question alone grows the commonweal of a nation. Asking this question and really listening, really caring about what the other has to say requires “a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate’ but as a human being, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark of affliction.”
It is the only question that really matters: “What are you going through?”
The pain and confusion and lack of harmony that you are experiencing now is, in part, the result of a failure of attentiveness. You have not paid attention to one another. You cannot pay attention to each other on a grand scale, through national or abstract or digital means, but only through real conversations, sharing space with one another, in the small places where intimacy and mutual understanding are possible.
“Happy are those who pass their adolescence and youth in developing the power of attention.” There may be an occasion here to consider how you are educating your children. I am not thinking about educational policy per se, but rather about the ways in which you lead your young people to focus or not, to invest themselves or not, to work through boredom or not, to listen even when it is inconvenient or not. Have you allowed your young to disperse their attention so vastly that they are rarely if ever capable of really sitting and waiting long enough to receive the often long-winded or difficult responses to the question, “What are you going through?”
If children are enabled to send their fleeting attention through portals of entertainment or devices of quick-served information the moment that their minds begin to tire or feel the itch of curiosity, then they are unlikely to hold their gaze on the face of someone whose condition does not look like theirs or whose words seem foreign because they come from a different place, a different situation.
“Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.” The only way to fight this repugnance is to train our young—and also ourselves—to hold their attention when they do not want to. To the extent that you make it easy for them to shift their attention and escape from the things and people with whom they find it difficult to wait, you are preparing them to encounter what you have encountered these days: the chaos of nearly universal misunderstanding.
Exercises in attention help us to acquire “the virtue of humility” and give us “the right foundation” on which to build a true union together, especially when your union already is and was always meant to be pluralistic. Paying attention to someone else—especially those who are different from yourself—must not be done with “any wish to gain good marks” or serve your own interests, whether those interests be revealed or hidden. Rather, asking the question “What are you going through?” in all its fullness means coming to the other person without ulterior motive or predisposed interpretation, to wait on her word, to take in what she says, and to form your understanding from her cue.
“The quality of the attention counts for much” in the development of a strong and lasting union; “warmth of heart cannot make up for it.” Nothing is more appropriate for a people who aspire to be one nation under God.
The way in which Weil’s essay develops is that it begins with claiming that attentiveness to God is the goal of prayer, then identifies attentiveness in school studies as a way to build up this ability, and finally it connects the will and the ability to pay attention to another person as the soul of the love of neighbor. To figure out what Weil might say to the American People right now, I thought about the essay from the end to the beginning. In either direction, attentiveness is the thread connecting love of God and love of neighbor, and attentiveness makes demands on each one of us because paying attention is hard and it requires practice. Like school studies.
Weil would advise us to spend time giving attention to each other—personally—and especially when the other person is not like you or sees from a different perspective or worldview.
We might learn to listen—really listen—to why other people feel like “my life does not matter in this country,” or “my way of life is misunderstood,” or “my prosperity is not important to the people with power,” or “my work is a dead-end,” or “my religion is not respected,” or “who I am does not fit what others want me to be.”
All citations from this imagined excerpt come from the essay named above in the volume Simone Weil, Awaiting God, trans. Bradley Jersak (Maywood, Connecticut: Fresh Wind Press, 2013).