The contemplative who can stand back from a situation and see it for what it is, is more threatening to an unjust social system than the frenzied activist who is so involved in the situation that he cannot see clearly at all. ~Protestant theologian, Karl Barth
Look always at the whole. ~ Marcus Aurelius
In the photo my hair is in braids and I am about six years old. I am wearing sunglasses and standing next to my father, who smiles proudly. My three year old brother is perched on our old Chevy next to a dark cloth spread over the hood. He wears a sun suit and is squinting into the sun. On the cloth are the day’s find, a cache of Indian relics. Dad had spent the day walking the plowed fields in the special places known to him, where Indians and, before them, prehistoric dwellers had camped.
He often handed me an ancient tool to hold, showing me how the flint had been worked and chipped to form something useful. “Just think, a little boy or girl long ago held this rock and played with it. This one was used to shoot birds,” he’d say, putting a tiny arrow point in my palm. He would gesture to the creek saying, “You have to learn to read the signs. They camped here, because there was water and wild life for food. The ground is up high, so they could see a long ways.” He spoke of the people who made the tools with reverence and a kind of wonder.
When he showed me where a glacier had moved through Iowa and left a particular kind of rock that had come from a place in Canada, and told me how that happened way before the Indians lived here, I realized that I was a tiny being in the sweep of the universe. So many things had happened before I was born and would continue after I died. The notion filled me with awe.
I grew up with rocks and so many arrowheads that Dad once cemented the chipped and broken ones to the edge of the steps leading to our front door. He carefully numbered and cataloged every piece he found with precise location, date, and field notes. He did not confine himself to stone relics, but also found the vertebra of a mammoth and teeth of a mastodon and a saber tooth tiger. Now that seemed amazing to me… these animals actually once lived where I lived. Dad could point out the creek bank where he found the relics. I loved to gaze at the reproductions of these creatures in the fold out color plates in Life Magazine. I would look at the huge, shaggy, mammoth beast surrounded by the spear wielding, ancient men in the magazine and then up at that tooth, bigger than my fist on the shelf in our dining room.
My father’s interest in history, geology, and archeology expanded my awareness of the world to encompass more than what I could immediately see. His respect for what had come before him and curiosity to keep looking, digging, and learning his entire life taught me that there was always more to see, to understand, and know.
I was not very good at finding artifacts myself. A rock was a rock to me. I would fix my eyes on the ground determined to find one, but rarely did. I think my father’s success was a convergence of understanding the effect, the heave and thrust of rain, ice, and plow on the land, a willingness to put himself in the skin of those early people, and an ability to use his peripheral vision. While focused on the goal, he, at the same time, took in the whole, aware of the plowed rows he had covered, the rows ahead, and those on each side of him.
Lately I have thought often of my father’s way of seeing and how he lived from a big, broad view of the world and his place in it. We as a culture seem in some places to have lost that sense. It is as though we have forgotten how to use our peripheral vision. We spend our time focused on televisions computer screens, cell phones, calendars, and our to do lists. We travel, shut up in vehicles, with the air conditioner on, and radio and ipod babble filling our ears. Many of us, living in cities, have fewer opportunities to rest our eyes on the soothing, panoramic sweep of mountains, plains, forests, and oceans.
We make decisions, express opinions, and live our lives from a constricted field of vision. We obsess and worry. We blow things out of proportion. We lose perspective and a sense of humor. We become rigid, self-righteous, defensive, and dull. (Please forgive me, if you do not do this. I know not all of you are like me).
Specific focus is incredibly useful. To hone in on a project, a piece of art, an idea, or another person brings precision and clarity to our thinking and our actions. However, we can get stuck in that narrow focus and fail to dial back to the bigger picture.
Try it. Focus on a point across the room. Narrow down your vision to look very intently at that single point. Then allow your peripheral vision to come into play. Slowly become aware of what you can see on either side of that point, then on either side of yourself, then behind yourself, and above and below yourself. Of course, you cannot actually see completely behind yourself (unless you have eyes in the back of your head like my mother). Imagine your vision and awareness radiating out from you in 360 degrees for miles and miles. At this point you may want to close your eyes. Go ahead. I will wait for you, while you enjoy the spaciousness.
Now notice what is happening to you. If you keep at this for a while, you will find yourself relaxing, The tension will go out of your neck, your jaw. Your shoulders will release. Your breathing will slow. A physiological shift occurs in your body and perception as you expand your awareness, taking in more and more. You may feel more peaceful. Some people experience an expansion and freedom in their attitude and approach to problem solving.
Jesus viewed others and himself from the broad perspective of eternity. In his self understanding as the Son of God was the awareness of all that was, all that is, and all that will be. I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He saw the specific need of the individual before him in the context of a much bigger picture and this sweeping view impacted what he said and did. While on this earth, Jesus never shook off that telltale scent of heaven, and the vision of the Kingdom of God in his union with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
As we offer ourselves, our world, our troubles, and our conflicts to God in prayer, we step into the sweeping majesty of eternity. We become part of something greater than ourselves. Our vision expands to include the whole. We find gifts we didn’t see before. We discover evidence of life we had no idea was right before us. We are connected to a woolly mammoth, whose 16,000 year old molar we hold in the palm of our hand. We are joined to all that teems and dances in the mind of Christ. I am no longer a “single interest group” rigidly focused on my particular agenda, but have entered the stream of creativity, grace, and vitality that is the Realm of God.
No telling what you might find then!
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