Simone Weil is one of my favorite 20th-century Christian authors, a fact I find it easy to forget, but which always finds a way of re-impressing itself upon me. This time, it was a simple, but transformative, passage in her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” that reminded me of her brilliance: “Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of 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.”
And, in case this sounds too simple, even easy, Weil clarifies: “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. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.”
This sentiment is striking, but it left me scratching my head. If compassion for the afflicted isn’t this type of attention, then how would such intense love of neighbor even look? I asked a few colleagues and racked my own brain for a time, until a story from my own past broke through the darkness.
About a year and a half ago, I found myself in a British hospital due to some complications related to my Crohn’s Disease. I was fine, but another patient clearly wasn’t. In the dead of night, her screams could be heard down the hall, blood-curdling and clearly laced with tears. My initial reaction, unfortunately, was one of annoyance: “I need to recover. Please, just let me sleep.” But one night, my roommate, a man maybe a decade or so older than I was, decided to visit this girl to see if he could help. I couldn’t even tell you how or why I decided to go along with him; it’s a small moment of grace shrouded in a cloud of forgetfulness.
What we found was a terrified girl of no more than 16 or 17 years of age, battling with constant, body-shaking pain. The nurses, exasperated from their constant need to give attention to the patients, could do nothing for her. They wouldn’t allow other patients in the room (presumably for some medical reason), couldn’t give her any more pain medication, and mostly just told her to be quiet. My hospital roommate, himself only recently out of surgery, would sit with the poor girl, listen to music with her, reassure her, and do anything to make her laugh. I, the scared foreigner, would look on and try to whisper encouragements. The nurses would chase us out of the room, and the situation would repeat itself over and over again.
I did practically nothing in this scenario besides be there, mostly cowering in fear because I was afraid of getting sicker. Were it not for my roommate’s saintly courage, I probably wouldn’t have found myself there. When we went to bed, the screams resumed from down the hall, as if we’d never been there. This might sound discouraging, yet I can’t help but think that moment captures precisely what Weil means by love of neighbor, by attention.
Love of neighbor doesn’t mean an affected warm-heartedness or pity; it means presence, a presence as passing and powerful as earthly life itself; “[i]t is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate,’ but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.”