In a recent post about my plans to leave my current life and help my parents, I quoted Simone Weil as follows: “We should do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing, which we are unable not to do.”  On first impression, Weil seems to be justifying avoidance of desirable activities we find distasteful.  (The term ‘righteous’ in the quote I take to mean not so much abiding by some absolute standard of morality but fostering right relationships—with others, oneself, or God.)  I manage to avoid many such activities without qualms.  At my church recently, someone was signing up participants for a walk to reduce hunger, with each walker pledging first to solicit sponsors.  It is a tragedy that so many in America and worldwide are hungry, and it would be good to raise money for the cause.  What I thought of when asked to participate, though, were other commitments I have and the hassle of trying to get sponsors.  I walked away from the table.  This was a commendable action that was easy to stop myself from doing.

Weil herself didn’t shirk from acting righteously, though (see her life story here), so it’s doubtful she was looking for excuses.  The sentence quoted above concludes as follows:  “but, through well directed attention, we should always keep on increasing the number of those which we are unable not to do.”  The idea, then, isn’t to passively wait for irresistible impulses to perform good deeds, but to direct one’s attention in such a way that such impulses come more and more often.

Most of the things I’ve done that might  be thought to have some element of righteousness in the above sense came about initially because my attention was captured by a need, and I then reflected on it until I felt I had to respond.  Thus, I’ve supported and helped some students not because I sought them out but because they walked in my office despondent or anxious or confused.  I participate in Kairos prison ministry because I was asked to do so and, after first trying to get out of it, had an inner sense that I had to say yes.  I’m informally co-teaching a Sunday School class because I attended a few times, saw they were floundering, and I couldn’t stand to let that happen.   Not every problem or need I attend to results in an impulse to respond with some form of help, but enough do that it’s become clear that paying attention to human need is dangerous to my complacency.  The events described above that prompted a sense of necessity weren’t needs I sought out but ones I thought about after they were brought to my awareness, seemingly by chance.  How many more events would prompt action if I were to be more intentional about attending to people and places lacking in shalom?

Besides people and places, there are other things we can attend to that might prompt action.  Many faith practices direct attention in some way: prayer, worship, and meditation all refocus attention from the mundane to the sacred.  I write this after returning from a Good Friday service, the culmination of Lent, that season of the year when attention is given to Christ’s passion.  Constantly attending to Christ’s suffering and death is like camping in a firing range: round after round may explode with no apparent effect, but finally a round lands near at hand, surrounding the person with fire and thunder.  The worshiper enveloped by the blast of Christ’s passion goes from that place changed. As often as not, something has become necessity that wasn’t necessity before.