Are we losing our ability to see?

(For my one remaining reader: I wrote a post in July on the WordPress iPhone app. It was written when we were staying in a cabin north of Estes Park, Colorado. The cabin is 8200ft+ [~2500m] above sea level. The post was a riveting reflection on making a proper cup of tea in relation to boiling point at various altitudes. Alas, there was a problem with the app and the post is lost forever.)

There is quite a bit being written these days (if you’re looking in the right places) about how conversation is becoming a lost art in our society, particularly for younger generations. Conversation’s demise usually linked to increased use of smart technology and social media. I think there’s good reason to believe that we are losing our ability to speak with others. But today I wondered if we are—I should probably say, if I am—losing our ability to see as well.

I don’t mean this simply in the sense of not noticing our surroundings because we’re always on a device, though that’s part of it. I mean it in the sense of wondering if we’re training ourselves to glance, to glimpse, and then move on, without ever fully appreciating what we see.

In order to visit my family in British Columbia, we have to drive through the Rocky Mountains. I’m often frustrated when in our hurry to arrive at our destination we don’t (or aren’t able to) take the time to stop in the mountains to breathe deeply and really take in the amazing beauty of the mountains. We try to do this when we have time (though we could make time even if we feel that we don’t) with a walk along a river or a hike into the mountains, but even then we’re always moving and our final destination is always in mind. I can’t remember the last time I simply stood and observed and took in the beauty around me for more than a few seconds. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that.

What does traveling through the mountains have to do with this? Only this: I’m talking about taking time to see and take in. I was on Instagram at lunch today, where I follow a couple of accounts that post pictures of small-town and rural England. They post beautiful pictures of rolling countryside and quaint villages. I love these images, especially the ones of the countryside. But here’s what I do: I scroll, I glance at the photo, I double-tap to like, and I move on. I rarely really look or perhaps gaze at the image. I realize it’s only a picture, but there’s something significant about just scrolling past with only a brief sense of “that’s nice” and a feeling of appreciation, but rarely, if ever, actively appreciating the image with a longer look.

I see it in myself and others in the endless photo-taking and selfies when we’re at some beautiful spot—the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the Great Plains, wherever it may be. We seem to spend more time looking at the world through our cameras than at the world itself. Years ago I gave up filming and photographing my children’s choirs and bands at school, because I didn’t want to keep watching these personal events through my camera (I leave the film work to Dixie now, who doesn’t mind.) I love photography and would like to pursue it more, but often it turns the world into something to be consumed by my camera and a rapid succession of stills, without actually making an attempt to simply appreciate the living, breathing, moving wonders of the world. I imagine photography should start with the appreciative gaze and only after that should I frame up the picture.

What am I losing in training my mind to glance and move on? What will this do to my understanding of the world around me, or even my sense of what’s real in an increasingly digitized world? What will this do to my sense of what it means to truly appreciate or even love something or someone?

I’m not sure I’ll ever think I’ve taken it in enough, whether it’s nature or a photograph, so maybe I’ll always be frustrated. But it can’t hurt to pursue the gaze, the meditation, and appreciating creation a bit more.

3 thoughts on “Are we losing our ability to see?

  1. Toni

    As you’ll probably know from being one of my 2 remaining readers is that we’re presently in Morocco with a ‘tour’ group on holiday, travelling through a variety of cities and locations.

    This will become pertinent shortly.

    Morocco is a photographers paradise, but only if you can actually see. Our tour guide – an intelligent man who was born in the high Atlas region – occasionally stops the bus at points along the way that tourists stop at, in order that we might take photographs, completely missing the marvels along the route.

    The problem for generation selfie is as you suggest, they’ve not learned to see. Using a camera might actually help, because it would give them a reason to stop and actually study the scene before them, rather than take it in at a glance, tap a screen and move on. TV and other forms of video make it worse, because that presents what someone else saw and the viewer appropriates it as if it were their own vision that created it, not realising that seeing requires learning and effort.

    We were out yesterday in a non-touristy part of the old town, surrounded by crumbling buildings and the air hazy with blown sand. We found a tunnel at the end of a passage, light filtering through from the other side, locals walking and cycling through. I’ve tried my hardest to capture what I saw, but I’m not sure the pictures will be able to convey it without the smells, feeling of sand on my skin, slight nervous tension of being a stranger in a strange culture.

    Keep taking pictures, Marc, but remember that you need to live the moment before you have something to show other people.

    Wish I’d not missed your treatise on tea – you should see the lengths they go to preparing tea here!

  2. Marc

    The basic point of the tea post was simply this: what does it mean to say that a proper pot of tea should be brewed with water of a certain temperature in relation to boiling point, when boiling point is a number relative to elevation? : )

    (Where I live, boiling point is about 97*C, for example. Where we were staying in Colorado, the boiling point is high 80s or low 90s).

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