Pay Nothing But Attention

Grace, part 2

You don’t have to earn the best things in life. They're free. You can’t buy them. Nothing you can say, do, be, or become can make you deserve them any more or any less.

I'm guessing you know that. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. We know it, but we don’t think about it much. We live in forgetfulness of what we know.

It’s like the capital of South Dakota – knowledge we don’t use as often as we would if we lived there. Only, in this case, we do live there. We live in the state of grace, and its capital is this moment. All your anxieties are of no avail, and your hard work is not necessary. That can be a sobering and humbling realization. It can also be exhilarating and liberating.

Beyond reminding us that the best things in life are free, the lesson of grace is also to pay attention to all that is freely given – even if it doesn’t seem to be all that great. To be attuned to grace is to be attuned to the beauty and goodness in the ordinary, quotidian conditions of existence: the feel of breath in your nostrils, the myriad sounds surrounding you.

I’m not saying economic security doesn’t matter. Or that you shouldn’t work hard to earn status, respect, achievements, and income. But maybe you’ve been doing enough of that. Too much, maybe. Perhaps you’ve been neglecting the everyday wonders of life for which you need pay nothing except attention.

Amid the hubbub and jangle of all that is, there is joy. There are pains and terrors, and joy persists. Joy is present in our relationships, in the pleasure that we have in beauty, in the marvel of natural world, and also in the marvel of the social world – all the seamless systems of earth, soil, evolution, and of civilization – the intricate organism that is a blue jay, that is a squirrel, that is a swamp or a forest, that is a city.

In the dark night of the soul, joy and grace may seem far away – inaccessible. Even in the normal, more-or-less satisfactory day-to-day run of life, grace may be hidden behind routine, behind the habit of boredom. Grace may be buried beneath our ambitions and goals. We can be so focused on where we want to get to, that we forget where we are – so focused on earning that we forget the unearned. We can fail to realize.

The double meaning of “realize” is helpful here. To realize is to become aware of. And to realize is also to make real. Noticing that grace is always already there is at the same time making it real. To realize grace and joy – to become aware of it and to make it real -- cultivate habits of reverence and awe.

It’s not hard. Slow down. Mono-task, paying deep attention to what you’re doing. Sink into your senses. Stay in the moment, neither cogitating about the past nor planning the future.

Something else that you know, that I know, but we live in forgetfulness of: none of this world is necessary. Nothing has to be the way it is – or has to be at all. And yet, here it is. Be amazed, be very amazed.

We live in grace. We live by grace. Grace plays hide-and-seek through all that is. It plays peek-a-boo – by turns hidden and revealed. So these questions arise: Am I living in a way appropriate to the promise of life? Am I being dull to life: unmindful of beauty? Careless with people? Closed-minded? Ungrateful and ungenerous? Self-centered, even greedy? Am I unknowingly oppressive, or even indifferent to that possibility? Am I weaving a web of rationalizations and excuses to disguise unhappiness of a shallow and narrow life? Am I realizing grace?

There’s a paradox here – an edge of cognitive dissonance that you might be feeling. On the one hand: the beauty and wonder of life and love and hugs and trees and wild geese honking, and you don’t have to earn it, you can’t earn it – all freely given. Nothing you have to do, nothing you even have to be. Everything that matters is already accomplished, already sufficient – in fact, abundant.

On the other hand, I’m telling you to do things. Slow down, stay in the moment, be amazed, amazed at the accident of it all – wrestle with these questions about whether you life is all it could be or your actions as beneficial as you like to assume.

So which is it? Is there work to be done, or is there no work needed?


Grace, you see, is free, but it isn’t cheap.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Grace"
See also
Part 1: Can't Earn It
Part 3: Spend It On the World

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