The old canard goes, “Don’t miss the forest for the trees”, an admonishment to take in the big picture.
But don’t miss the trees. In our desire to understand the pattern of the big picture, we miss tiny, beautiful things along the way: the new color palette painting the leaves as autumn arrives, the squirrels making final preparations in their nests among the branches, the crunch of the new carpet of fallen leaves under our feet, and the gaps in the trees as the leaves fall, revealing brilliant blue sky and the migrating geese passing overhead.
In her 2013 book On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation, Alexandra Horowitz makes the point that to concentrate on certain things, we miss much of what’s going on around us: “We miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us. … The capacity to attend is always available, we just forget how to turn it on.” One way to see what you’re missing is to slow down; to become aware of the scene around you. In her book, Horowitz accomplishes this by taking twelve walks along the same route of city blocks, joined by a different companion for each walk. “There is a certain bias in everyone’s perspective,” Horowitz writes, “the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession.” Horowitz borrows perspectives from a botanist, a wildlife behavior specialist, an expert on lettering and signs, a community organizer, a dog, and a toddler, among others. She was rewarded with a richer appreciation for her neighborhood and the power of looking closely.
Looking is a difficult discipline during a time of accelerating change. The disruptions of technology, globalization, and our tribal reactions to these changes don’t reward slow, patient observing with a companion. But as the poet and essayist David Whyte has written, “The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recognize anything or anyone who is not traveling at the same velocity as we are. When it becomes all-consuming, speed is the ultimate defense, the antidote to stopping and really looking. If we really saw what we were doing and who we had become, we feel we might not survive the stopping and the accompanying self-appraisal. So we don’t stop, and the faster we go, the harder it becomes to stop.”
Finally, stopping to notice is the prelude to gratitude. For my breakfast this morning, I am grateful. For the love and courage of my family, I am grateful. For the courage of all candidates to run in a contentious political climate, I am grateful. For people willing to talk civilly despite different views, I am grateful. For the glorious scarlet maple tree out my kitchen window, I am grateful.
Practicing gratitude for the smallest things in our lives grounds us in the reality that in the midst of our struggles, we have been blessed abundantly. As mystic Meister Eckhart said in the 13th century, If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is Thank You, it will be enough.