My Far-Away Sister

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Andie Cisneros ’10 M.Ed.


Approach life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. (Laudato Si’, #226)

This past week, I sat down with this line from Laudato Si each day and considered its implications for me. I kept thinking of a favorite author, John Green, who often writes on the theme of imagining others complexly.

Middle school age kids—my former students and Green’s audience—are beginning to do this. They start to realize that others have interior lives right after they realize they themselves do. I wish I could have told my students that there would be a few years of grappling and then they would have Being a Compassionate and Empathetic Person down for life.

We all know that’s not how it works, though, and I know I battle daily against my own myopic lens. If I think about it, I usually remember that the people around me exist for their own sake rather than for mine. In practice I live each day preoccupied by my own interior life, its noise, worries, and low-level scheming (“How do I get this person to not think I’m lame?”), forgetting that the person before me is complete, whole, and complex; that God loves them utterly and they deserve my attentive presence. Inward attention is critical to our relationship with God, but unless that awareness and its fruits are turned outward, in short, I’m missing the point.

The Holy Father’s exhortation to “serene attentiveness” and being “fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next” demands I remove myself as my default focus and foster instead a generosity of spirit, attention, and presence to my neighbor. This can be deeply uncomfortable, especially to we introverts who can find encounter taxing, even when it’s joyful. Perhaps this is why I’m sometimes still just as inept at attentive presence as my students were. Still, like so much that Christ calls us to, this effort bears fruit we might not anticipate at the outset.

I’d been thinking dimly for some time about a version of Pope Francis’s words, and trying to be attentive and generous, despite my inner introverted middle schooler. This week’s focused reflection surfaced two things.

First, even my feeblest efforts at presence open me to surprising grace. I am in the Lord’s presence when I am more present to my friend, my colleague, the cashier, the person I’m giving a dollar to.

Second, attention to my proximate neighbor made me more attentive to my brothers and sisters the world over. It wasn’t a goal, and yet I’m becoming conscious of how my choices might affect the people who make the things I use, or who rely on the same resources I do.

If the person before me is a whole, complex person loved by God, then so are all the people I will never encounter. Is my obligation to them any less? Or might my attentiveness be a sort of generosity to my far away sister, even if my physical presence can never be?