Some years ago I was giving a week long series of workshops at a church in Louisiana. I had one “day off” and the pastor asked what I’d like to do. I knew, but had no idea what it might entail. “I’d like to go to the swamps, the bayous.”
“What? Really?” He was astonished—after all, I hadn’t chosen Bourbon Street—and delighted, because he had a trawler and loved the swamps himself. So we packed a lunch and headed out there.
I was enchanted. I’d never seen country like this before. The trawler could move slower than walking, so the opportunity to see new things was perfect. Only, for some time, I didn’t see much except trees and water. Everything seemed to be about the same color. The pastor realized I wasn’t seeing well. He began to point things out: eyes like bubbles on the water’s surface were an alligator; those bumps on a log were water turtles; white spots perfectly still above the water were egrets. Without him pointing them out, I’d have missed them all.
I’m pretty observant in nature. But in this totally new environment, I didn’t know how to look, how to see. I didn’t know what to look for, what was ordinary and what wasn’t, what would always be there (like a tree trunk) and what might disappear any moment (like a turtle or a bird).
As often, nature seems to offer analogies about living. My memories of all that I saw in that swamp have faded, but I’ll never forget what it felt like to need to be taught how to see. I think life brings us many experiences that require us to learn how to see.
New experience is like new territory. Perhaps it’s a new opportunity, or an illness, or the birth of twins, and we often don’t know how to “see” it. That is, we don’t know how to think about it or what attitude to adopt toward it. We need to be taught how to see.
That’s when a large and open-hearted world view can help. Asking other people who’ve had the experience can also help. Experiencing oneself as a learner is the best of all. We can cultivate open, interested attitudes before our particular, unexpected day-in-the-swamp comes along. Then we won’t miss out, since we’re ready to spot and enjoy what life really offers us.