I Forgot To See
The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.
William B. Irvine
The cameras come out; everyone is anticipating the moment; the baby is about to take her first steps. In a ritual like manner, the young neophyte first rocks back and forth in attempts to gain courage. She looks around to her supporting audience, who are all smiling and leaning slightly forward in an urgent sort of way, looking just like 3 year olds at the counter of an ice cream shop on a sweltering August day. For days the baby has been on the verge of participating in an activity only advanced animals perform. She will no long be on all fours like the wild beasts, nor like the apes, who rarely walk with their hind legs. Very shortly, she will be wondering the vast environment of her house and yard. She will discover walking on concrete is different from walking on carpet—un-mowed grass and sand being the most difficult of all terrains. Slight variations in ground slope will throw off her timing, and she will come crashing to the ground. She will conscientiously take steps when shoes are placed upon her tiny feet, for shoes have taken on a whole new meaning when they are not simply used for fashion. Yet, before this can happen, the baby must first step into the unknown.
Click . . . click . . . click . . . goes the camera. Shouts of joy are heard throughout the house. “GOOD GIRL!” . . . reoccurs like a broken record by the mother and father. Those who understand the monumental occasion experience feelings of jubilation, and those lacking the understanding capacity vicariously feel triumphant anyways, as they are swept up into the excitement. The baby is picked up and new attempts at more steps are taken. One step, two steps, three steps are achieved. Day by day, more steps are undertaken. The baby still prefers crawling, but as her confidence increases, there is a gradual transfer to the more advanced type of mobility. Proficiency is soon achieved, and the observant parents will notice the day their baby “gets the hang of it.”
Yet, the joy of the occasion will rapidly pass. Soon the baby’s walking will be expected and in some case enforced (how often have you heard parents at Target say, “walk . . . you are a big girl now!”). The parents have moved on; they now wish to see further development in speech (or other areas). In my case, my wife and I have a kind of competition to see if our new baby’s first word will be “mommy” or “daddy.” My little girl, I think, must have figured this bad for our marriage, so she simply said “Hi”, which was equally as awesome. But like the walking, I soon took for granted my daughter speaking. I wish to hear more words, sentences, and proper grammar. When my son says, “I got some candy,” I reply, “You have some candy.” Progress, progress, progress: this is what I wish to see in my children. Springing from an unsettling anxiety is paranoia about my children’s development: Are they on schedule? How do they match up to other children their age? Are they normal? While in the womb, my wife and I desperately hope our children will lack physical and mental disabilities. We will still love him or her if they do, but who wishes their child be born with a deformity?
This desire to see my children develop is a good thing, but I believe such a desire to see them progress can blind me from the superlative fact that they can walk, speak, write, etc. in the first place. When I see them walking now it means almost nothing to me. I get annoyed at them speaking or shouting sometimes. I wish they would stop asking so many flippant questions. I have lost the mystery; I have lost the insight into the everyday goods that once brought so much joy.
This fact was brought home to me a short time ago. I had become calloused to my daughter walking for sometime now. Once the most amazing reality in the entire world was now just an ordinary fact of life. I was sitting at my computer when my three-year old son burst into the room with tremendous joy, shouting at the top of his lungs,
“Daddy, look! Look, Daddy!”
I slowly turned around in slight annoyance to see him pointing at LydiaSue walking.
I said, “What”?
To which Alyas replied,
“Deea is walking” Daddy, Deea is walking!”
Of course she is walking, I thought to myself, so what’s the big deal? And then it hit me: my 3-year old son had eyes to see all the goods in front of him. He was not preoccupied with acquiring more goods down the road, nor was he blinded to the wonderful. His childlike simplicity allowed him to see how brilliant it truly is to see a baby walking. Those simple, tiny little steps are of more value than all the products I own or could buy. I knew this to be true because I asked myself if I would trade my daughter’s ability to walk for what I currently or could own. Without questioning, I choose her walking. Who wouldn’t?
But, unlike my son, I had forgotten. I no longer saw the beautiful in front of me. I was preoccupied with acquiring more goods to satisfy the moment, so I could grow bored with them the next. I have become accustomed to the many goods: always drinking without quenching my thirst. Never content with where I was. Always looking for the next thing, person, or experience to get my blood running again. Except, as I knew, such a state is draining, for when the thrills have subsided, all that is left is my perceived vacant life.
But was my life really vacant, or had I just become blind to the amazing gifts God entrusted me with? Indeed, I had forgotten. How was I to heal my blindness to see all the goods in my current life? Seeing no harm in taking the counterintuitive advice of the Stoic philosophers,* I began to imagine losing all the goods I currently had. My car was now gone, my computer broken, my legs amputated, my children sick or dying, and my friends leaving me. I no longer had a job, a bed to sleep in, blankets to warm me, and cloths to cover me. I had lost my ability to speak, to hear, to walk, to feel, and to taste. My children despised me and never wanted to see me. My wife was dead and no woman ever wanted to be with me. I imagined a world with a God who hated me and laughed at the idea of dying for me. I was alone, cold, naked, and dying without hope.
While at first I was sure such an exercise would result in despair, for who wants to ponder all that could go wrong with life, I found it resulted in just the opposite. The exercise awoke me from my consuming slumber, for it reminded me of the precariousness of my life while simultaneously showing me all the blessings I truly have. I was able to negatively visualize all these goods because in fact I already possessed them all. Wow!
Suddenly, I began to see my life as my son saw his. All the things I once took for granted looked new and fresh. Walking never felt better. Eating was sheer delight. Hugging my happy kids was just awesome. Kissing my beautiful wife was refreshing. Church became exciting (I really don’t remember the last time I sang with such joy). I found great comfort in knowing no matter how horrendous of a crime I committed, God still loved me and would die for me even if I were the only human to ever exist. You see, by imagining loosing everything, I was able to see all I had. I noticed how fortunate I truly was. Instead of having to race off to the next best things (whatever that might be), I could simply be content with the goods I already had. I began to do this practice throughout the week, and to my surprise, the trivial had become tremendous.
* Stoicism is a philosophy of life that flourished in the ancient world of Athens and Rome. They placed the highest value in living a life in accordance with right reason. A good portion of their writings is dedicated to teaching how to achieve tranquility and avoid negative emotions through exercises of right thinking and acting.
For a more complete overview of Stoicism see the article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/
My Sources of Inspiration:
(Readers Note: I do not endorse everything the author advocates in this book; nevertheless, it is full of rare jewels.)
Irvine, W. B. (2008). A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford, New York: Oxford Press.
Staff Researcher, Brandon Wall, writes a regular blog for this website.
Brandon Wall is a counselor in the Cedar Rapids area: http://www.cedarrapidscounselingcenter.com/