Dec 01, 2011 0 Share

The Gift of Attention

Close-up of man with hand cupped around ear to listen.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of this holiday season, it may help to remember that one of the most precious gifts we can give to one another is, in fact, an intangible: our honest, undivided attention. Real attention can be transformative. Another person's focused attention can call forth stories and music we didn't know we had in us. It can allay doubt and discouragement, helping us to be honest and brave. In turn, paying attention to another person can offer us insight into their minds and hearts, and a feeling of true, substantive connection.

I say this because I remember a significant moment last winter in which the power of attention was made manifest for me. My husband Jonathan and I had traveled to New Jersey to visit my family for the week. One day, my aunt, uncle and cousins came to visit us as well. The house was full, and so, predictably, my brother Willie retreated into the basement after greeting our guests. He emerged before supper, and led us in prayer before we ate. He was in good spirits, and so it seemed there would be no destruction of person or property that day. But the real surprise of the evening came after the meal, when he walked over to his keyboard and started playing songs for us.

Instinctively, we rose from the table and gathered around the piano. We stood in small clusters, forming a loose half-circle behind Willie as he played. He ran through his repertoire for us, pausing briefly between each piece for our words of praise and (soft) applause.

For the grand finale, he began to play, “The Sound of Music.” As he played the sweet notes, the song's lyrics ran through my mind. Suddenly, the song became personal: My heart will be blessed with the sound of music.

It wasn't simply the clear tones of my brother's playing that astonished me that night. It was the manner in which he played: purposeful, strong, and confident. After years of witnessing his struggles, seeing him in his element was more than I could have imagined or hoped for. In fact, it made me want to weep with gratitude, and I could tell I wasn't the only one. The group of us, usually so merry together, fell silent before Willie's simple songs. As we stood there in quiet thanksgiving, I had the sense that this specific music was born not only from my brother's special talent, but from our collective witness. We stopped to listen to all he had to offer, and that offering was stunning in its beauty.

Since that experience, I've made an effort to stop multi-tasking when I'm spending time with beloved people. It's a challenge; in fact, it's a counter-cultural thing to do. I don't know about you, but I've experienced plenty of people checking cell phones during conversations and updating their status during meals. And while all these things by themselves may seem innocuous, what they add up to is distraction. Lack of attention. The moment, missed. But when we do pay attention? It can translate to sharing the sacred.

As Willie ended his playing that night, the original song lyrics stopped running through my mind, and these verses took their place:


You play, “The Sound of Music” for us.

We listen with pride in every right note.

My musical brother is giving us a concert.


These hands that bring us music punch walls.

These feet, pushing pedals, kick and thrash.

The man in control is, at times, out-of-control.


How could this happen? I ask. And how can I not

believe, seeing it? Sometimes miracles look like: 

someone playing piano, everyone paying attention.