Active Attention

“What gets scheduled gets done.”

It’s a pithy line, first proclaimed by a present-day planning guru, with a penchant for productivity. It’s also a mantra I accept. My planner accompanies my every pursuit: work, family, fun. Each piece of my day appears on the pages of my planner. If “what gets scheduled gets done,” then I better schedule everything.

These days my planner has frequent gaps. The comfort of scheduling my life has lapsed. Trips have been cancelled, meetings postponed, worship suspended. What was once a roadmap to accomplishment has morphed into a reminder of actuality. If “what gets scheduled gets done” then very little is getting done these days.

Reflecting upon my typical rituals, I’m confronted by a heartbreaking entry from Leo Tolstoy’s diary, “I was cleaning a room," he wrote, "and, meandering about, approached the divan and could not remember whether or not I had dusted it.... I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember — so that if I had dusted it and forgot — that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not.... If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been."

How much of my schedule is acted upon unconsciously? How often do we spend our days dusting divan after divan only to arrive in bed unable to remember one item we have traversed in the intervening hours since we awoke? What does such a rhythm indicate about our priorities? Our desires?

The present pandemic has lifted my eyes from my planner. Everything has changed. Not only has much been cancelled, but much has been presented. I have been presented with more time with my wife; presented a view of the seasons shifting in the ground under my feet and the branches above my head; and presented with the opportunity to consciously pay attention to the gift of life that encompasses every moment of the day. There are the same number of hours in a day as before this pandemic began, but now I have the opportunity to pay attention to how they are filled.

With eyes opened and alert attention, I see God permeating my surroundings. I actively acknowledge the numerous volunteers who are making phone calls, purchasing groceries, and delivering food. I bask in the countless ways this community has reached out, adapted to new realities, and cared for one another. I give thanks for the gift of working alongside wonderful colleagues and for the opportunity to do meaningful work. Each of these items, and many others, stand out against the regular tapestry of ordinary pre-pandemic days because of what they represent: pieces of God’s goodness and love active in the world, right here and right now.

In the days ahead I will still use a planner (it’s sitting next to me as I type these words). I will still believe that scheduling something is a good way to ensure it is accomplished. But I am convinced that the inverse is not true: Something does not need to be scheduled to be “done.” The goodness of God is persistently present on our planet. It does not require particular participation on the part of any person. Rather, we are invited to pivot our days from schedule to attention, from uniformed unconsciousness to active attention. Praise God that each time we do we will see something more; paying attention will never be “done.”