Have you ever ran across one of those quotes, or sayings, that no matter how hard you rack your brain the simplicity of the statement gets lost on you?
Usually, I get lost when reading Hegel, Whitehead, or some other abstractly concrete thinker begging me to silence all the glowing screens and focus on the ENTIRE argument. I take no shame in admitting that on more than one occasion, I not only read, but I re-read, and do so loudly, to follow the argument and make damn sure I have understood every word, every sentence, every nuance that might be hidden beneath and on top of the words.
But sometimes, when I travail against my own inclination to cohort with academic prose and I succumb to the allure of imagination, I read fiction.
Fiction teaches me to see. It teaches me to create.
It’s not an argument; its an invitation to see something that no one else sees yet is seen by everyone. It invites us into a picture shrouded with ideas, worlds and ends that are somehow conjoined together by the illusory fiction that fiction is based on seeing what the words give us, rather than seeing what the words create in us…hence recasting our angle of vision into something not even the author could have foretold.
So I read and I am shaped. I see.
I am shaped by those fictive words and those non-fictive ones, in anticipation of something I know not what but inevitably lead me to seeing as I never have before, or will, thereafter.
The beauty in such seeing is that some passages, particularly ones that don’t require a ton of exegetical context literarily, fly off the pages at us and slap us with their simplicity. They teach us to see when we forget we had forgotten.
We grew up. We put aside child play. We lost our sight.
One such passage that now sits ornamentally on the desk I pretend to write at is by American literary icon and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I have managed to live my life without much Thoreau. This isn’t surprising. I have managed to live without much of a few things that I now find indispensable. I was 33 before I read a single word of him and this to my shame.
I am 33 now.
To the point, Thoreau is deserving of all the accolades that adorn his name, his books, his story. In his journals, he writes of seeing as only a transcendentalist can.
To risk the cliché I mention it here, the simple words that slapped me in the face, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it what YOU see.” [emphasis mine].
Thoreau’s work is full of this idea of sight, of seeing what others miss even though they are staring at the same damn thing. His work is full of a oneness of thought and rugged intellectualism that unities nature and nurture. His writing taps into that human originary desire to peel back the complexity of life and just…you know, be human in the world.
At first blush, a philosophical treatise made more sense to me than this quote. What does it mean? What romantic ideal is he describing and why does it matter?
I am always suspicious of these bleeding heart Utopian dreamers, like Thoreau, that push me to the edge and dare me to jump.
Yet, I need them.
Their logic is impervious to a logic that sees in this sentence what I see in prose, even poetic prose.
When I first read Thoreau, this quote, I think, “Of course it’s not what we look at that matters! It’s what we have been sociologically conditioned to see! We see only what our lenses allow us to see!”
Allow a simple American sports analogy.
It is common parlance for someone to say, as if to commend their sight, “I call it like I see it.” This once simple sports confession by umpires has now become common vernacular for “it is what it is” or “It is what I see” so to speak.
In other words, this trite saying presumes the one seeing is seeing correctly. In reality, who cares “if you call it like you see it,” especially if you’re an idiot and you saw it wrong! The fact that you’re relying on your own weak empirical vantage point doesn’t make your sight impeccable.
So when I, one trained in the humanities, read Thoreau and I see this, I think, “well, duh, of course it’s all about what you see…it’s never been about what you’re looking at.” From Plato’s cave to an Atlanta Braves baseball game, life is never about objectivity, it’s always about perception.
Then, something made its way into my life.
This quote now not only sits in the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, but it sets on my desk, encompassing a circular pewter encased magnifying glass. To remind me, “hey stupid, look here, remember this lesson.”
This small object careened into my life and it yelled at me.
Those words, “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what YOU see,” punched me in the stupid head that is supposedly filled with things that make me smart.
It careened not only into my life but was born during a moment in which it appeared that everything I have been working toward for nearly 15 years was finally coming to fruition. Yes, you did the math correctly. This would be a journey that started when I was 18.
Ubiquitously, this meteor of awakening fell into my lap only recently, a year past what has become a loss, and not a victory. I stared at this object, with these words, Walden rolling around in my brain, and my nihilist self thought, “what the hell does this even mean? What the hell is HDT even talking about?”
You see…I was dense. I admit it. It’s one of only 3 hamartias in my life. Being dense is prob 3rd on the rung.
So, I asked someone wiser than me. I was the Ethiopian Eunuch and I needed a Philip.
I asked, “what does this mean? How does this make sense? How I see obviously got me no where!”
And I have to admit. I am not prone to emotion. But the next few words that hit my ear were equivalent to the Blitzkrieg emotionally, precisely because I am dense, “it never mattered if you got in, what always matters is the way you see things because the way you see things is unlike anyone else.”
I thought what I achieved mattered! I thought that my great ideas mattered! I thought the prestige of this next journey mattered! Nope. None of it. I was wrong.
None of that ever mattered…and as I stared at where I wanted to be a year ago, I finally learned (though I have hardly incarnated), it’s not what I was looking at that mattered. What mattered is what I saw when I opened my eyes, light flooded my body and I inhaled creativity each day…because no one did that, or does that, quite like me.
What always mattered was just…my seeing. What my sight beheld never mattered; it was always what I saw through my sight that mattered. That was the gift, even though I often berate the smallness of the gift, of my own human potentiality or possibility.
Of course, I have been taught how to see. I see because of many factors, most of which I did not choose. My Apologies to Arminius.
No one has quite had the same experiences I have had. No one has read the bizarre combination of texts and integrated that with the many people that have walked through life with me. No one is the unique mess that is my life. And my life is comprised of a ceiling that covers my world and shapes what I see when I stare at what is through the glass ceiling that hangs above us all.
And this is the lesson: The world is never what we look at…what we look at is only what we see in front of us. The real world is what we see in the world that we look at, and that position, is unique to us all, even when in our darkest moments we feel like the eternal night of the soul will never end.
Quit looking for the gift…the gift was already given and it’s what happens when you see the world and you give the gift of sight to others.