The More We Look, the More We See

My three-year-old daughter doesn’t miss a thing. She notices when we move the snow shovels from one side of the garage to the other. She notices when the color of the sky has a pink-ish hue, rather than blue. She notices when a picture in her book changes from one page to the next. And so she’s helped me notice things I hadn’t seen otherwise.

Observation is a key life skill, and it’s one we are losing rapidly. I know I’m guilty of looking down at my phone more than up at the sky, and so I often don’t even know what I’m missing.

That’s why I’ve been so struck by the book Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life by Amy HermanHerman is an art historian, and her course “The Art of Perception” has helped organizations ranging from the FBI to 911 operators to business manager become more attuned to their surroundings and become communicators.

Art seems like an odd choice of ways to help the FBI catch criminals, but a moment’s thought shows why it can be so helpful. As she says,

Ironically, it is often the simple, the everyday, and the familiar that we have trouble describing because we have ceased to notice what makes them interesting or unusual. By adulthood, we become so inured to the complexity of the world that only the new, the innovative, and the exigent capture our attention and dominate our field of vision. We rely on experience and intuition rather than seeking out nuances and details that can make a difference in our success. Yet it is the things that we see and negotiate on a regular basis to which we must be especially attuned. (11-12)

In her course, Herman has people look at pieces of art for several minutes, looking at an inanimate scene for a long time. Initially, it’s feels kind of boring and pointless. But then people start to see things that hadn’t seen before — the way a tablecloth is placed, the lighting of a scene, the expression of a person’s face. They discover that the more we look, the more we see.

Her course reminded me of a quote from a book by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s, whose title is inspired by a verse in this week’s Torah portion: God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know. In talking about Moses and the burning bush, Kushner asks:

How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it was actually being consumed? Even dry kindling wood is not burned up for several minutes. This would mean that Moses would have had to watch the “amazing sight” for several minutes before he could possibly know there was even a miracle to watch!…

The “burning bush” was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention for something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention. (25)

We live in a world of multi-tasking, but as research shows, when we multi-task, we actually fail at all the tasks we were trying to accomplish. By pausing, looking, and paying attention, we discover things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and become more effective in our work and our relationships. More importantly, we can find more joy and beauty in life, and even see God when we didn’t see God’s presence beforehand.

Paying attention a conscious choice, and it’s a skill we need to develop (or at least re-learn). It’s definitely hard. But if you have trouble doing it, from my experience, just find a local three-year-old.  They’ll open your eyes in ways you never would have imagined.

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