Lately, I”ve been slowly savoring every word of Annie Dillard’s, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. I’d seen her book quoted numerous times by some of my favorite friends around the internet and finally, when I could stand it no more, I bought myself a copy and started reading the day the mail carrier left if on my doorstep. She opens chapter two, Seeing, by describing how as a child, she used to hide pennies for people to find, but describes how she often hid them in the same general area, even drawing chalk arrows to direct unsuspecting passerby to her hidden treasure.
It’s still the first week in January, and I’ve got plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapping gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But–and this is the point–who gets excited by a mere penny? (Pg 17)
Dillard describes various instances of her own noticing and not noticing things. She talks about these experiences as if they were their own seasons, and of course, beautifully describes numerous “hidden coppers” in nature, all right under our nose, if only we knew how to look for them, or were willing.
The point is, how we see a thing determines it’s worth. And of course, she’s not just talking about pennies hidden in the gnarled roots of a sidewalk sycamore. I can’t help but think of what I see, or do not. And what I value.
At the turn of a New Year, it’s pretty typical for us to reflect back on the year prior–to recall the myriad of joys and sorrows that made up our days. And the risk is, that we will either reflect through rose-colored lenses, or we will over exaggerate things beyond proportion. It’s harder than it seems to see things as they truly are. In order to see, we have to let go of the framework, the expectations, the parameters, we so carefully built around things. We are so accustomed to, so oblivious to, the lenses we’re always wearing.
A situation some years ago made me sharply aware of my own favored lenses. In the wake of that (then) unwelcome revelation, I asked God to help me see people as He sees them. I prayed it on repeat, a sort of personal challenge and a genuine ache to be better than I am. This has been an eye-opening prayer (pun intended), because God has actually answered it. Again, and again. I know this because the thoughts that occur to me, as I observe others, are sometimes so foreign, I know full-well not to take any credit for them.
I have looked into the face of pure homeliness (by worldly standards), and felt such an other-worldly surge of love and admiration for the sparkling eyes, or the crooked grin of a complete stranger. I’ve seen past the graying teeth and unwashed hair of an old woman in the grocery line, and been gobsmacked by her sheer presence. She radiated light, as if she were quite literally glowing, and it stunned me. I’m sure I stared as if I were admiring a piece of precious art. She was art, in all of her unkept glory. These, and other surprising observations, catch me off guard every time. I never see them coming. And I’m always left wondering what else I don’t see.
Surely, I’ve missed much.
Dillard talks about a “seeing that involves letting go”. She describes the difference in what and how she observes when she walks with and without a camera in hand.
“When I walk with a camera, I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light imprints on my own silver gut.”
2017 was a year of taking off blinders. The political and theological conversations I’ve participated in (and eavesdropped on) have served me well, stripping away layers of prejudices I have carried, mostly without noticing, and probably, ashamedly, out of a sense of comfort or entitlement. I wonder what else I need to let go of, in order to truly see.
What I’m continually learning is that I can only love my neighbor, if I am willing to see them. Not as I determine them to be, not as I frame them to be, not even as I want them to be, but as they actually are. If I am to love them, I have to remove my safety glasses. I have to risk being offended by them. Or blessed by them.
I have not perfected it. I’m still caught looking around and observing with a judging eye, the lives of those around me. I still make assumptions, which, as the saying goes…
But I have hope, too. I have seen visions not of my own making. I have felt inexplicable, inner warmth in the presence of strangers. I have been surprised by sudden feelings of compassion, of mercy, when I know for sure, my own natural reaction would not include such generosity.
Slowly, I am learning to see. It is, as Dillard writes, “all a matter of keeping my eyes open.”