The mother looked harassed, sitting there filling out the forms in the dentist’s waiting room. On one side of her a quiet lad about twelve, obviously suffering. On the other, a young gentleman of perhaps three. Given the age difference there was every possibility of a third child, of an age somewhere between the two but currently at school. Mum had reason to look tired, of course.
Three year old was swinging his legs and looking round, smiling at everyone in sight. I caught his eye and smiled back, sharing that direct complicity that you only get, as a rule, from the very young. Particularly when they are intent on mischief.
His eyes wandered some more then lighted on his Mum. His face lit up with a big, beaming smile.
“Love you, Mum!” he said at the top of his little voice, leaning in for a cuddle. Mum wafted him away as if he was an irritating insect, not even looking up from her task. Puzzlement and disappointment chased across the little face. Crestfallen he shuffled back in the chair and seemed to curl in on himself.
It didn’t last long, of course. Small boys are resilient creatures and within seconds he was happily tormenting his brother. The whole incident took less than a minute before we were called into the surgery.
While we were in there, my son being reprieved from the dreaded drill…albeit temporarily… and I guarding the wheelchair in the corner, I was thinking about that little incident. I wasn’t casting blame … I don’t know the family and you can never read whole story at a glimpse. No, I was wondering if the mother really knew what she had just done, and what effect it would have on her son. She was so focussed on the sheaf of papers that have to be filled in at every visit these days that I doubt very much if she had even noticed.
More to the point, how often do I do that? Or you? Simply not notice.
It made me wonder. I would hate to feel I have dismissed or rejected expressions of affection through inattention or preoccupation, especially from children. I would hate to feel I have missed the confidences of a friend… or those small, tentative ‘feelers’ that are dropped into a conversation in the hope we will notice and give them space to speak what burdens their heart.
It goes without saying that I have, though, even though I don’t know for certain. How can I know? If I was not paying attention then the moment is gone and I would not know what I have missed. We are the last to see these flaws in ourselves, simply because our attention is focussed inwards.
We are all aware of those times when our attention meanders off at a tangent when someone is speaking. We have probably all read a book and found our thoughts wandering so that we have had to go back and start a page again. It isn’t that we haven’t read the words or heard them… we simply didn’t take it in. We weren’t ‘with it’, weren’t paying attention… though attention should not be regarded as a price to be paid, but rather as a gift of love.
Because, when you think about it, attention is a gift. The fact that we are able to lift our eyes to see the world around us, to be able to drink in beauty, share laughter, see a ladybird in the grass or a star in the sky… The traditional five physical senses allow us each to perceive in our own way, but none of them give us anything unless we give them our attention.
We can hear the warmth in a voice, read the hidden message in a mundane phrase… if we listen. We can gulp down hot coffee or savour its taste. Our skin touches objects every day, all day… yet how often do we take the time to notice the silken caress of water, the gentleness of the breeze or the life in the hand that touches ours?
There is that old saying, you have to give in order to receive. By giving attention to the world around us, we know its beauty… by being open to a voice we are allowed into the heart of a friend. By hearing a child say ‘Love you,’ we touch a moment of tenderness and joy. And in giving our attention to the moment, we give something else too, showing others that they matter to us.
We are human, we make mistakes… get distracted… frazzled… We will not always pick up the signals, nor truly hear every word. But we can try. Attention is something that grows the more we use it and so is the given gift that comes with it.
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