Focusing on the present is increasingly quite the challenge. Daily news bombards us with fears about the future, and some of us might find ourselves stuck thinking about a past stage of life or daydreaming about a hypothetical future. While contemplating the past and future are not necessarily wrong, it’s easy to substitute them for being present in our everyday lives.
Yet, it is the now where we can best serve others. Attentiveness, or a sustained awareness of the present moment, might be a forgotten virtue, but it’s an important one. And as many people today are increasingly lonely, finding simple ways to serve and connect with others is all the more important.
We’ve all been there: grabbing lunch with a friend, laughing about past escapades and memories, telling the friend enthusiastically about work or school or our family life … and realizing the friend’s not listening.
Maybe he keeps glancing at his phone. Maybe he’s asking questions you’ve already answered. Maybe he just can’t keep his eyes off the Packers game on the television set behind you. Whatever it is, it’s painful: Inattention communicates ambivalence, and—within the realm of relationships—ambivalence hurts.
And in today’s era of constant stimulation and distractions from our devices, attentiveness is a way to show loved ones that we care about their accomplishments, problems, and lives. Attentiveness, then, is part of serving others. It communicates to them that we sincerely care about their lives. It shows that we’re willing to direct precious time and energy to listening and interacting well.
To be sure, it’s not easy to pay attention, at least not in the focused way that service sometimes requires. We all have responsibilities, personal concerns, or to-do lists that keep stomping their way through even the most well-intentioned minds. And in today’s era of constant stimulation and distractions from our devices, our attention is already divided. It takes effort to push the distractions away: to practice active listening and focus our thoughts on the person we’re speaking to. Still, attentiveness is another way to apply the famous Golden Rule: If we’d like people to listen well to us, shouldn’t we do the same for them?
Beyond giving others our full attention, we can also use attentiveness to find ways to help others in our lives. We can’t take opportunities we don’t know about. It’s hard to fix the carburetor without seeing the “check engine” light pop on, and it’s hard to mend a hole in a sweater we didn’t know was ripped. Perhaps less obvious, though, is the number of opportunities we have but don’t know about. In many of the situations around us, there are chances to serve and help others. Attentiveness opens our eyes to these opportunities, helping us to effectively navigate and respond to problems.
For example, a lady at my church noticed that our pastor’s voice was occasionally getting hoarse halfway through the morning service, and every week since then, she’s made sure to keep a full cup of water ready near the pulpit. Attentiveness helped her to take action; it caused her to see the problem and respond to it.
Other people in my church work to pitch in and help when young couples are expecting: Those people might volunteer to watch the older children, for instance, or make a meal after the baby is born. Again, noticing the need serves as a catalyst for serving it.
Some service opportunities, too, are time-bound. Maybe your student friend has an exam: Wouldn’t they appreciate a quick text, a small “Good luck as you finish prepping!”? Maybe an acquaintance from work has a surgery: Wouldn’t they enjoy a note, something like “I hope everything goes well!” or “Just wanted to say I’m thinking of you!”? Every day, we encounter little moments to serve others—moments that will soon disappear. Attentiveness is a way to grab a hold of these moments, finding opportunities to serve and using them. It’s not always as hard as we think.
Attentiveness may seem like an insignificant skill, but it’s pretty powerful. By focusing on the present, we can better notice the needs of those around us, and we can better interact with the people we see daily. Attentiveness shows other people we care, and—as such—it belongs on the list of virtues.
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