It’s not what you look at that matters . . . it’s what you see

  • Mar. 8, 2011 7:00 p.m.

There is a lot to look at wherever we go. We look with our eyes, and the image is conveyed to our brains. When truly seeing, the image is conveyed to our hearts. What do you look at, or more specifically, what do you choose to see?

We perceive so much that is negative. Bad news bombards us from everywhere. Take airports, for instance: there are television screens broadcasting weather tragedies, political unrest, war, crime, and economic disaster.

Your trek takes you from one end of the airport to the other until you reach your gate. By the time you arrive you’re a bit winded, but still positive. But then you remove your coat, shoes, wristwatch and belt, place all liquid items in a baggie, stand in the x-ray scanner-thingy with your hands above your head, palms up (oh gosh, is this when they see me naked?), while a handsome but grim TSA agent inspects your carry-on bag, rooting through your underwear. All the while, television screens surround you blaring scary stuff and fellow (robotic) travelers stare down at their cell phones as they walk and text. You’ve come to believe you’ve lived way too long by the time your flight is boarding. Know what I mean? Where is the joy?

Seeing, not just looking

At an Iowa elementary school one day I noticed a display of quotes on the wall. One resonated deeply. It was Henry David Thoreau who said “It is not what you look at that matters . . .it is what you see.” These simple, profound words will hopefully forever change what I see.

Early the next morning, I drove along a country road, winter cornfields showing nothing but stubble and patches of snow. A cattle truck in front of me was going way under the speed limit. Hills and curves prevented me from going around him.

This is what I looked at – the rear end of a slow-moving truck on a dreary Iowa Wednesday. This is how I felt – irritated. A few seconds later, I glanced in the side mirror. What I saw stunned me. A gigantic, full moon loomed. Wow, where did that come from? I wondered. I saw it again, this time in my rear view mirror. The huge sphere was an unusual gold-like color and hung there as if by invisible cords.

Suddenly, I was parked on the side of the road, the slow truck fading into the distance. I leaned against the cold trunk of the car and saw that moon like I had never seen it before. Gratitude and awe filled me, replacing the frustration I felt when I looked at the truck. Thank you, Mr. Thoreau.

I finally arrived at my destination in the tiny farming town where the only place that looked hopeful for a cup of coffee (sans Wi-Fi) was called The Gingersnap.

I considered sitting in my car and hoping for cell phone coverage. But Thoreau’s words came back to me, so I pulled into The Gingersnap. Who knows what I might see?

Walking in, I noticed that, to the right, was a grocery/hardware/work clothes department, straight ahead was the beer aisle, to the left was the cafe area. Four older men, sitting in a booth, briefly turned their eyes to look at me. Glanced up I saw, hanging on a wall, a dusty clock that had stopped working at 4:20 one day. Everything felt suspended in time.

That morning, while sipping a mug of Gingersnap coffee, I saw and appreciated what many of us believe to be totally replaced by the hustle and bustle of bigger places – a slice of Americana we imagined lost with the days of Mayberry.

The four men, probably farmers based upon what they wore, sat with their elbows on the table, each holding a mug. There was no real conversation. Occasionally one would sigh, saying “Yup”. The others nodded.

The door opened. A man with a long, unruly beard walked in and sat at the table across from me. The waitress swept by with a bottle of syrup and plunked it on his table. The man with the syrup sat quietly, not texting, not using a cell phone, and certainly not listening to an IPOD. He just sat.

You know who you are

One of the farmers tipped the last of his coffee into his mouth, set the mug down and said, “Well, I suppose.” Another said, “Me, too”, and a third “Yup”. They slid out of the booth, waved to the waitress, and left without paying. I was curious about that until I saw the hand-written sign above the cash register: Credit extended up to $35 for some folks. You know who you are. I smiled.

The blonde woman delivered one huge pancake as big as the plate it was on to the bushy-bearded man. He poured syrup in the middle of the pancake, then ate from the centre outward. As the hole got bigger, he poured more syrup into it. The syrup didn’t spill over the sides of the plate! Perhaps for the rest of my life, when I eat pancakes I will think of Iowa and Thoreau.

Life is thrilling, but only sometimes. It is always, however, interesting. Positive things are everywhere if we will just remember to see them. Seeing makes every day boredom-proof . . . and beautiful.


Stacey A. Lundgren is a professional speaker, character education (anti-bullying) expert, co-owner of the Michigan-based company Bucketfillers For Life, Inc., and author of the highly-acclaimed anti-bullying/pro-kindness book, True Bucketfilling Stories: Legacies of Love .