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Michelle Voss Roberts: Convocation Reflections

May 25

Attention Please!

Michelle Voss RobertsIn my Commencement address on May 20, I asked for the graduates’ attention.

Many of them had joined our Zoom watch party along with their family and friends. If teaching, learning, or completing a degree remotely has taught us anything, it’s how distractable we can be! Even so, I knew that our graduates were capable of paying attention, because paying attention is perhaps the most important skill they have honed over their years at Emmanuel College. 

According to the French philosopher Simone Weil, attention is the entire point of school studies. For her, the practice of attending to a single thing has an almost sacramental quality. Our students have attended to particular terminology in Greek, Hebrew, Pali or Arabic. They have attended to the inner workings of the philosophy of Nagarjuna, al Ghazali, or Augustine. These things may have little to do with why they applied to their program; but when they gave their attention to a subject, opened themselves to it, and became absorbed in it, they grew in their capacity to attend. For Weil, this kind of single-pointed attention is a lower form of prayer. 

Emmanuel College graduates have practiced something nearly miraculous. They have become what this suffering world most needs: people capable of giving their attention. Research shows that when one person simply sits with a another and acknowledges their pain, it deescalates their physiological response. More than trying to cheer someone up or distract them from difficult emotions, the words, “I see you” make a world of difference.

There is a special tree in my backyard, an enormous maple whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know during the COVID-19 pandemic. I worked from home under her enormous canopy in the warm months. All throughout the fall, I wondered when her leaves would drop, and what colour they would turn. It turns out, she is a late dropper, and they were yellow. Now, as I soak up as much sun as I can in the Ontario spring, I watch her leaves emerge. Perhaps this year you have attended in special ways to the land, the music of a river, the birdsong in the morning, or the walking routines of your neighbours.

The world is calling, “May I have your attention please?”  Our natural and urban surroundings, and the sufferings within them, call to us. Our graduates know how to pay attention to the particular—to the client or congregant before them, to the needs and inequities of a community, to a complex emotional landscape. Their capacity for attention will help them be the kinds of leaders we need. Only through careful listening and attention, even (and especially) to the parts that make us uncomfortable, will we forge the creative solidarity needed to rebuild our world.

Pay attention, graduates!

Principal Michelle Voss Roberts

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