My world view was formed by modern American conservative Evangelicalism (M.A.C.E.) From early adulthood, I was haunted by the question "What's God's responsibility and what's mine?" Because, obviously... "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," AND "... apart from me you can do nothing." Related questions abound: What does it mean to abide? How do I know I'm acting in Christ's strength and not my own?
Add to this the common (oxymoronic?) Americanism, "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps," and many more injunctions to become self reliant, independent, and the master of my own destiny. Add the fact that Heroic figures are, more often than not, self possessed people with great internal fortitude. They solve their problems through will power, not attention. I suspect now that this ethos left most of us feeling weak willed and culpable for our human frailty. Which, coincidentally, distracts from the effects of the powers and principalities -- the real enemy -- not flesh and blood.
I found this sentence and it's alternative to "will power" in my early twenties when I was experimenting with my identity. Add to this, Ms. Weil's insight about the function of the will being no more than a pointer -- the place where one decides where to look, not the force that guides one's decisions -- and the question that had haunted me since my early teens changed from "What's God's responsibility and what's mine" to "To what do I pay attention?"
The following quote from Weil further clarifies the issue: "What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution to a problem? Attention is something quite different."
Yes indeed, attention is something quite different. Will is muscular and full of effort. It's expensive; it costs a lot of energy. The size of one's energy account varies based on temperament. It's always been my suspicion that it is those with a surplus of energy that are selling the stories: "Never give up," "You can do whatever you want as long as you put your mind to it."
Attention, on the other hand, seems hard and draining at first, but once you get the hang of it, attention requires very little energy -- and it leads one into energizing activities, including rest, and joy.
"Taking yourself in hand," conversely, is a picture of doing violence to yourself, presumably for some greater good, but the point is, you can't keep it up, you'll use up your reserves. And that's when one is prone to really lose control.
I've noticed that it's when I'm not paying attention, when I'm functioning in auto pilot (efficiency mode) that I think I need to exercise will power and "kick myself in the pants" (why are the admonitional cliches to do better always physically impossible?). When, on the other hand, I'm awake, attentive, and unhurried, I can see clearly that where I'm looking ignites my unconscious drives. (These drives vary from person to person depending upon an almost infinite number of variables.)
Igniting unconscious drives sounds dangerous, right? But that assumes that all of your unconscious energy is dark. It is not. Compassion, creativity, imagination, these, and many more positive energies arise from deep within, when drawn to the surface by attention. In this way attention is very much like prayer, and worship. We become what we worship.
When we're not paying attention our unconscious energies they take the wheel and drives us to the same place over and over again. This can appear to be okay, if those drives are rewarded by society. But it's not freedom and just because society approves doesn't mean it's not a fault.
Here's how this process works in my experience. When I'm attending to, that is listening to my inner voice(s), my body, the tone and body language of those I encounter, I am unable to act rashly. I'm simply holding too many contradictory signals and desires. (It's not as cacophonous as it sounds. We humans are capable of so much more than we realize. All these things are processed in seconds.)
This holding is the activity of attention, and the gravitational force that keeps one grounded in concrete realities. It's when we fail to hold the contradictory signals and desires that we float off into abstract ideologies and habitual defenses for the indefensible. The weight of these things is both a check on automatic behaviors and a part of our identity, our substance.
"Curing our faults" rarely means dispelling or disowning them. To be labeled a "fault" a habit of being has already cut some deep groves in the brain. It's not going anywhere soon. Curing, in this context means including it in the conversation, not as an equal voice, more as a reminder of it's presence. It's when we forget faults, or cast them into our shadow that they do the most mischief.
There is hope, however, eventually a fault that has been held but not acted on loses most of it's power. It's not nearly as insistent. It's a faint voice, a good reminder of one's frailty, but not a major driver of thought or action.
Trying to have victory over faults through will power, on the other hand, is exhausting, as I already mentioned, and it's like one of those misleading inner games where you tend to find what you're looking for, victory. When winning is the goal, we find a way to tell the story so that it sounds like a win. Meanwhile, the unattended fault is working behind the scenes, tapping into the energy poured into defeating it and taking on a different form, becoming harder still to identify.
A lot of faults spring from internal contradictions. For example, I was a lonely latch key kid and I didn't know what to do with the feelings I couldn't describe or understand. But there were always plenty of Oreos or Frosted Flakes in the cupboard. They were an effective dimmer switch on those uncomfortable, unfathomable emotions. So now, and probably for the rest of my life, there will always be a conflict in me between feeling and numbing. It seems like I default into numbing more often than not, but "no effort of attention is ever wasted." (Another of those sticky sentences.) Whenever I pay attention to this inner conflict -- just looking, not trying to win, I'm making space for Grace to work. I'm experiencing truth. I'm grounded in reality. It's not the transcendent, victorious dream I hope for when I'm disembodied. It's better.
"When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door."
It's better because it's a door into a possibility greater than anything we can accomplish by will power.
"All absolutely pure goodness completely eludes the will."
Being grounded in reality through attention provide the benefit of slowing one down, hindering rash, automatic behaviors, but an even greater outcome is the posture towards Grace that opens previously locked doors into possibilities unimagined.