On my visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I bought a T-shirt printed with a lovely picture of the mountains, and this quote beneath it:
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. –Henry David Thoreau.
What a simple way to convey such a profound truth. One person may look at a mountain and see beauty, another strength or wilderness. One person may see the mountain as a challenge to be climbed, while the person standing next to him can find delight in just gazing up at a lofty peak covered with snow. When you pause to look at a mountain, what do you see? Or, as so many of us, do you merely cast a passing glance?
This quote can be applied to far more than the mountains on my T-shirt.. To really see something for its intrinsic value requires effort, unlike looking, which is merely casting one’s eyes in a certain direction. Truly seeing something requires attention, concentration and open-mindedness. Allowing oneself to push away other distractions and really see is an eye-opening experience, one that can be as wondrous as it is, at times, uncomfortable.
For example, take a homeless person. A casual look and one might think what a loser, look how dirty she is, why he doesn’t get a job? But take a minute to really see the person beneath the grime and beyond the frayed clothing. A person who may have been a mother, a soldier, or perhaps a young person orphaned and alone. Each of these people have a story, each one at one time had a family, but sadly ended up in these dire circumstances, perhaps due to mental illness, a broken marriage, or abuse in the home. To really see them can be unsettling, and our inclination is to move along, neither looking at nor really seeing them at all. I think the reason we are so uncomfortable is they remind us that the same could happen to us. Life gives us no guarantees, but to become aware, to have compassion, requires seeing the world around us, the beauty , the challenge, and the tragic circumstances many people experience and perhaps finding ways to help.
Another example to consider is looking at someone staggering out of a bar. Just another drunk, you may think. But many things can cause someone to turn to alcohol to numb their pain – a failing marriage, losing a job, being given a diagnosis of terminal illness. Perhaps this person is caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s and just needed to escape for a while. Not a good choice in any circumstance, but maybe compassion will show on your face if you try to see the truth behind the behavior, rather than the disapproval that appears from a mere judgmental look.
Really seeing what is unfolding around us can be both uplifting and upsetting, but in the long run we can become more aware, more compassionate people.
Rather than just skimming along the surface of life, we should all take the plunge and explore the truth behind Thoreau’s words –what matters is not what you look at, it’s what you see. And what you choose to see will impact the world and how the world sees you.