Weekend essay
8 min read

Your attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, Australia. 

Eighty years after her death, Simone Weil’s wisdom is a vital challenge to today’s attention economy. Justine Toh explores her life and thinking.
A monotone street mural of a young woman looking fiercely at the viewer.
Street art image of Simone Weil, Berlin.

Your attention is a fragile thing.    

Trouble is, we only learn this after it’s been frayed – as realised by anyone who’s ever emerged, bleary-eyed and regretful, from watching one too many Instagram reels. Not that our inability to look away is entirely on us. In an attention economy, trillions of dollars are to be made through exploiting our attention. It’s why some, like social critic Matthew Crawford, call upon us to preserve the “attentional commons” by treating attention as a public good like fresh air and clean water. His point: let’s use the not-so-renewable resource of our attention wisely. Be careful about what you pay attention to.  

If you struggle with sustained focus – and, given corporate assaults upon it daily, how could you not – then it’s even more vital that you, well, attend to the life and work of Simone Weil (1909-1943).  

The French philosopher, labour activist, and not-quite-Catholic mystic wrote passionately about the importance of attention and even the “miracle” of its occurrence when directed, deeply and lovingly, towards another person. Reading Weil against the chronic distraction of our times – the real product flogged by that attention economy – makes clear that even eighty years after her death, Weil couldn’t be more relevant.

But for Weil, ideas needed to be lived and experienced. 

Weil’s life was short and difficult – often by choice. She grew up the younger sister of math prodigy André Weil in a comfortably middle-class, non-observant Jewish family in Paris. She had a first-rate education that set her up for a fairly cushy life as a teacher. But an encounter with then-classmate Simone de Beauvoir suggests a saint-in-waiting quality to the teenage Weil. Ever the idealist, she desired to feed the world’s starving millions. De Beauvoir, who recalls the exchange in her biography, was disinterested: finding the meaning of mankind’s existence was more important, she declared. “It’s easy to see you’ve never gone hungry,” retorted Weil. 

They weren’t empty words, either: Weil often did go hungry out of solidarity with suffering others. (Indeed, her refusal to eat more than her French compatriots under occupation likely hastened her death). But for Weil, ideas needed to be lived and experienced. Her determined attempt to identify deeply with the plight of working people meant she put herself forward for repetitive, fatiguing factory work or manual labour on farms, even though, sickly and clumsy, she often became a liability.  

There were other misadventures too: frustrated attempts to assist the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and, later, the French resistance during WWII. Few of these endeavours were fruitful but Weil was nothing if not committed to doing something, anything. Even if the outcome was uncertain and one wasn’t exactly fit for the task. 

For Weil, to attend well to other people meant making their welfare and wellbeing central to our concerns. 

It is in Weil’s writing about attention that we glimpse, perhaps, something of what drove her to put herself at the (frequently extreme) disposal of other people and causes she fervently believed in. In a now-famous essay on school studies, Weil makes a startling claim: the point of school is to teach us to pray – by which she meant: to attend, deeply, to whatever is before you.  

The idea was that students would apply themselves to an endeavour that wouldn’t reveal its secrets so easily. As Weil saw things, wrestling with algebra and trying to follow its impossible logic simultaneously flexed and trained, if you like, our attentional muscles. Even if the equation was still impenetrable after an hour, “this apparently barren effort,” Weil declared, would still bring “more light into the soul”. Teaching students to persist through difficulty, she believed, would pay off far beyond the mastery of any school subject. It would, in fact, prepare people for the real business of life: paying attention other people. Not least because, as we learn soon enough, they can be way more infuriating than maths. 

Even though Weil casts attention as prayer, God wasn’t to be the singular object of our attention. The plight of our neighbours was also to fill our gaze. For Weil, to attend well to other people meant making their welfare and wellbeing central to our concerns and bestowing on them the honour, love, and dignity they were due. It meant granting them the strange compliment of being real – or being a real person in the way we experience ourselves as real people – and then putting our own real selves at their disposal. This is why Weil called attention the “rarest and purest form of generosity”. It required the attentive person to, in a vivid phrase borrowed from Pope Francis, “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other”. 

The experience of suffering and misfortune seems to exile someone from the rest of humanity, to undo them in some essential way that strips them of their humanness. 

But the power of this attentive gaze goes still further. It has the power to rehumanise the dehumanised. As Weil writes: 

The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. 

The experience of suffering and misfortune seems to exile someone from the rest of humanity, to undo them in some essential way that strips them of their humanness. Weil would go on to describe such a state as one of affliction – one she experienced, firsthand, as a factory worker. In a letter known as Spiritual Autobiography, she writes of the exhausting and gruelling nature of the work:  

“There I received for ever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron which the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves.” 

Affliction, then, is the person reduced to a “thing” by the experience of suffering and oppression. But here is the transformative power of attention: it is precisely what enables someone to recognise that the afflicted other is a person “exactly like us”.  

Take, for instance, Weil’s reading of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, a tale perhaps broadly familiar to some. It describes an act of unexpected and radical compassion by a Samaritan, a social and ethnic outsider to a Jewish man robbed and left for dead.  

Christian commentators often pay close attention to the attentive care the Samaritan shows to the beaten man: for them, the true test of the Samaritan’s neighbourliness. But Weil has a different focus. For her, the critical moral act was the fact that the Samaritan paid attention. He stopped and looked at the man who had become less of man and, nonetheless, gave “his attention all the same to this humanity which is absent”. 

Weil calls this an act of “creative attention… [that gives] our attention to what does not exist.” Everything that then follows – the Samaritan pouring oil on the man’s wounds, taking him to a place where he will be cared for, and paying in advance for his keep – is almost beside the point, because it all depended on this first act. To be a neighbour, suggests Weil, is first of all to see. 

Perhaps this is why Weil writes that paying attention to the suffering of another “is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” Attention, then, enacts a kind of a resurrection because it can bring the almost dead back to life.  

The power of paying attention is that it can transform a lump of anonymous, misshapen flesh lying by the side of the road into the other person who is “exactly like us”, the other person who is as real as we are. The person who requires, from us, all the compassion we would wish to be shown if we were set upon by robbers on a lonely road. 

Our entire attention economy is organised around helping us avoid the demands of other people. How many of us have retreated to the comfort of our screens to soothe our social anxiety 

We’ve travelled a long way from where we started: with our difficulty focusing in an age of distraction and the all-too-familiar experience of giving our attention – which, as Weil has taught us, also means giving ourselves – to things that don’t always deserve it. But our own travails with attention have much to learn from Weil’s account of the moral, political, and spiritual charge of attention. 

For one, she illuminates for us the determined inattention of our time. Our entire attention economy is organised around helping us avoid the demands of other people. How many of us have retreated to the comfort of our screens to soothe our social anxiety, or to numb the guilt we feel at failing to show up for people? It turns out that the loss of our focus and ability to concentrate is just the tip of the attentional iceberg. Also at stake is our ability to be present to the people we love, and even to be present to ourselves – and our pain.  

Beyond that, there are many contemporary equivalents of the man of Jesus’ parable, first afflicted by suffering and then afflicted by the ease with which that suffering can be ignored. I write from Australia, in the recent aftermath of a defeated referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament: an invitation, issued from the nation’s first peoples to their fellow citizens, to see their unique circumstances and grant them representation over policy matters directly affecting them. Lives are in the balance: the life outcomes of Aboriginal people are drastically worse than other Australian citizens. Now, to the loss of language, culture, country, and pride, comes a further blow: they will not be listened to, either.  

They are not the only people we struggle to see. The lady with Alzheimer’s Disease, the illegal immigrant, the victim of family violence, the modern-day child slaves forced to mine cobalt to power our smartphones. It is profoundly difficult – and costly – for us to see them and recognise their claims upon us. To love others, as Jesus once enjoined his followers, as we love ourselves. 

The vulnerable have always risked being overlooked and ignored. But Weil gives us eyes to see all this – and asks that we do not look away. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world,” she writes, “but people capable of giving them their attention.”

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7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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