Waiting to See

“What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience,” according to Jennifer Roberts, whose essay, “The Power of Patience,” I think about often. The idea is that to know something requires time. This is especially true when it comes to the knowledge we gain by seeing the world. The problem, we might say, is that we rarely really see the world despite the fact that we are always looking at it, precisely because our looking lacks both adequate time and the requisite patience. We also tend to think of knowledge too narrowly, merely as knowing-stuff-about but hardly ever as relating-to.

I thought of this as I walked through my neighborhood early this morning, nothing glorious or profound going on, mind you. I was reminded, though, of a line from Lewis:  “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” I would add that it also depends a great deal on the speed at which you are moving, physically and mentally.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451, billboards are 200 feet long because drivers are moving so fast they would not be able to read them if they were smaller. In Bradbury’s dystopia, speed works as powerfully as censorship at stifling thought and obscuring the truth of things; walking is deviant behavior.

Walking this morning, I was reminded of how even here in Florida, known, among other things, for having really only a season and a half—how even here a maple tree can, around this time of year, seem like a tongue of red-orange flame striving to touch the sky. It’s small thing, in some respects. What one notices is often not very consequential, but it’s not necessarily about what one sees. It is more about cultivating the capacity to see and the awareness that the world can be known in a deeper more satisfying way; it is about remembering that there are surprises to be had and that a measure of wonder can be sustained; it is about recognizing that the alternative, a perpetual inability to see the world beyond our own “skull-sized kingdoms,” can amount to a soul-withering alienation.

Vision deceives us because we tend to imagine that with a glance we’ve seen what there is to see, as if our minds took snapshots of reality in all its detail. Or, as Roberts puts it, “Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness.” That requires something else: time and patience. “There are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive,” Roberts reminds us, and “infinite depths of information at any point” in our experience.

“The deliberate engagement of delay should itself be a primary skill that we teach to students,” Roberts, a professor of Art History, concludes. It’s a skill we all need, I’d say.

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7 thoughts on “Waiting to See

  1. This notion gets at an important part of of Annie Dillard’s project in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

      1. Pick up a copy of The Annie Dillard Reader published by Harper. It gives you substantial portions of Pilgrim, and important selections from the rest of her oeuvre–a great place to start.

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