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STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 11/22/2010


Essay: Love and Attention

Every year STILLPOINT and the Jerusalem and Athens Forum (JAF) honors program sponsors an essay contest for current students in the program and JAF alumni who are still at Gordon. Lindsey Reed’s essay “Love and Attention” was this year’s winner.

Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile. . . . Intelligence and love are not in separate compartments: love is rich in intelligence and intelligence is full of love.

—From Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict X

As I think of the most loving people in my life, I do not think of the Latin word for love, caritas. Most of these are ordinary people for whom the simple word “love” fits more closely.

I think of Mrs. Farley, an elegant 80-year old who lives at the retirement home where I worked last summer. My job was often stressful and unpleasant: The dining room was understaffed; the kitchen felt like an oven. I’d rush around trying to please 50 very-hard-to-please customers. Food was rejected as too hot or too cold; forks and teacups handed back to me if they were hard to handle.

In the midst of this was Mrs. Farley.

I’d rush to her table, but she was never in a hurry. “How are you?” she’d greet me, beaming, shaking her costume-jewelry earrings. “Are you having a good afternoon?” The words flowed together like a song. I’d lean in close, taking her hand, talking about the menu. Mrs. Farley never had much interest in the menu—she was so easy to please, and besides, dementia made the menu hard to grasp. She’d interrupt my talk of roast chicken and asparagus with compliments: “You have beautiful skin, dear,” and “What a pretty shirt.”

Does “love is rich in intelligence” imply that intellectuals have a greater ability to love? Were Mrs. Farley’s loving actions “blind”?

Simone Weil has helped me better understand the place of intelligence in love. According to Weil, even more than intelligence, attention is essential to love:

Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance, the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.

Love, then, is the capacity to attend to another. Academic pursuits are helpful in developing love. We gain a capacity to focus on the needs of others by focusing on an equation or by straining to write a sentence. But one day my academic pursuits will be forgotten.

While intelligence may be a means, attention—which is love—is the end: “The greatest of these is love.” What is important above all is my capacity to look attentively at someone and to ask “How are you,” or to almost sing “Did you have a good afternoon?

Lindsey Reed is a junior English major from Ottawa, Canada.

Honorable mentions were awarded to Hilary Sherratt, a senior Pike Scholar from Rowley, Massachusetts; and Sarah Grimes, a senior sociology major from Terryville, Connecticut.

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Lindsey Reed