In my photography class a few weeks ago, we were discussing a chapter from novelist Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird.” Titled “Looking Around,” this chapter argues that in order to write or, more broadly, engage with any form of art, you have to learn to love and revere the smallest details of both yourself and the world around you. The way to do this, Lamott says, is by “looking around” with intention and care: “There is ecstasy in paying attention,” she writes. In our conversation that morning, one of my classmates connected her quote to a saying that I’m sure many of you are familiar with: “Attention is the purest form of love.”
Admittedly, I have always thought of this quote as a little cheesy and somewhat overused, but in the context of the discussion and Lamott’s insightful writing, the beautiful simplicity of the aphorism struck me. I don’t think I ever disagreed with the sentiment behind the saying. In fact, what led me to ignore it is that it is so obviously true. The idea that giving attention to something or somebody is an act of love didn’t seem particularly revolutionary to me. But in the days and weeks following that class, I’ve been unable to keep the phrase from bouncing around my head. Those words that had previously been so uninspiring all of a sudden seemed to be echoing throughout every aspect of my life.
As anyone who read my last column will know, I believe that my life in college has been in many ways defined by two contradictory experiences. At Bowdoin, I have so often felt a sense of exceptional freedom and seemingly unlimited choices laid before me somehow combined with the crushing reality of being incomprehensibly busy every day. In other words, options for how to spend your time are seemingly endless, but time itself certainly is not.
While Bowdoin is admittedly small, there are still countless academic departments, clubs, sports and people to invest your time in. Even if you spent decades as a student here, there is no conceivable way that you could run out of new classes to take, people to meet or new activities to participate in. There is truly only so much that one person can explore in the handful of semesters that we have in Brunswick.
I have most certainly had moments of boredom on campus, and there have been occasional days and nights where I feel like not enough is happening, or where the small size of Bowdoin feels limiting. But much more frequently, I have felt the opposite: that there isn’t enough time to spend time with all the friends that I want to, take all the classes that interest me and go to all the parties, events and meetings that happen in any given week. So often I feel forced to make excruciating decisions about how to spend the fleeting free time that I have. It seems impossible to spend an hour doing something without missing out on five other things happening at the same time.
It is incredibly easy to be frustrated by the feeling of time and its endless possibilities going past in front of your own eyes: I would be lying if I didn’t say I feel that every single day at Bowdoin. But on the other hand, there is something unbelievably beautiful in that frustration. Attention, I think, is inherently connected to time: to give attention to something is merely to dedicate your time purposefully and intentionally.
It sounds strange to say, but I think a large part of what has made my experience at Bowdoin so meaningful is the constant awareness that time is running out. I know that any time I go to a class, a frisbee practice or go sit on the quad with my friends, that the people around me are there because, on some level, they chose to be there. When you think of the million other responsibilities, assignments and activities that everyone is dealing with, the idea of a group of people joining together for even a few brief moments begins to feel miraculous.
In this way, the idea that “attention is love” rings truer at Bowdoin than almost anywhere else. At a place with so many choices for how to spend each moment but such little time to spare, every bit of attention that you give and every minute that you surrender become imbued with meaning. The simple act of getting lunch with someone, spending a few hours in a club meeting or even choosing one major over another becomes an unmistakable act of love.