The Price of Attention

This week's reflection is written by
Mr. Joseph McDaniel, OSFS.

As a casual NFL fan, whose attention is drawn to the gridiron only once the playoffs begin, the defensive stalemate that characterized the most recent Super Bowl was thankfully punctuated for me by the regular interlude of this year’s lineup of Super Bowl commercials. While feeling slightly guilty for being so intrigued by such unabashed invitations to American consumerism, I’m always curious to see what the best in current televised marketing can come up with.

This year, broadcaster CBS charged $5.25 million for a 30-second time slot during this year’s Super Bowl. In other words: $175,000 per second. While marvelling at the exorbitant sums spent on half-minute clips of humor, sentimentality, and sometimes downright oddity, I actually believe that there is an important message of wisdom communicated in the ever-increasing inflation of the value of a Super Bowl ad: our time and our attention are precious, even down to the second.

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In a conference given to the early Oblates, founder Blessed Louis Brisson rhetorically asked the question, “What is the cost of sanctity?” His response was,

It demands of us, to begin with, a continual attention to ourselves. We must have our eye constantly open on ourselves, and we must have this impression, this conviction unceasingly that we are supposed to become saints, and not only for such and such a moment, but our fervor must be continual. It necessitates, therefore, a sustained, continual attention in all our actions, in all that we do. If negligence occurs, if we no longer think about holiness, our soul becomes weakened and loses courage, and then we are obliged to make greater efforts to regain the time lost.”

In other words, sanctity requires attention. Holiness begins, not merely by setting out to do or achieve certain spiritual practices, but rather with a conversion of our perspective. It involves being able to see the presence of God in our lives, and to examine how attentive we are to this presence in different circumstances. We pay attention to ourselves not in order to become self-focused, but like a football player watching game film, in order to examine the extent to which our lives actually conform to the “game plan” for our lives that God has communicated to us.

On the field, a moment’s distraction or fragmentation of attention can resulted in blown plays, missed calls, or even injury. To execute a single play well, and indeed an entire game, requires an ability to attend to the intended goal within the unfolding circumstances around it, not getting distracted or discouraged by shifting defenses, collapsing pockets, or unforeseen bounces, but instead integrating them into the task at hand.

In other words, a successful game both requires intention and attention: a deep clarity of focus on a singular goal and a broad perspective of how changing circumstances can fit into that goal.

French writer Simone Weil once wrote, “the habit of attention is the substance of prayer.”  It is no wonder then that Father Brisson so emphasized the Direction of Intention as the prayer that encapsulates the wisdom of the Salesian tradition. Whether we recite this prayer through a specific formula or use our own words, we offer each action with the goal of uniting ourselves more closely with God through it, which requires the foresight to be attentive to God’s presence in all its forms, both foreseen and unforeseen.

Such prayer only takes a few seconds at various intervals throughout our lives, but these seconds can be more valuable than even the most lucrative Super Bowl commercial.

My God, I give you this action.
I offer you, now, all the good I shall do and I promise to accept, for love of you, all of the difficulty that I shall meet.
Help me to conduct myself during it in a manner pleasing to you.
    -A formula of the Direction of Intention