Seeing Beneath the Broken Surface

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 - 5:30 am

Seeing Beneath the Broken Surface

I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to look but not see, missing a lot in the process. For example, we “look” at another person and find only the reflection of our own biases, needs, and fears — rather than truly “seeing” the being we’re with.

It’s also easy to look at the world around us and find only banality, corruption, and violence — rather than also seeing the good that’s there, the “hidden wholeness” (as Thomas Merton called it) that lies beneath the broken surface.

Here’s a poem I wrote after a walk in the winter woods, where the reflections in a very quiet, partially frozen stream allowed me to see much more than I could when I was merely looking around.

For me, this poem is a reminder to still my mind and to practice “soft eyes” so I can see the beauty — and the potential for beauty — that’s in human nature as well as the natural world.

Today I’m heading out for another walk in the winter woods. Given the world we live in right now, it’s time for a refresher course in seeing, truly seeing!

“The Winter Woods”
by Parker Palmer

The winter woods beside a solemn
river are twice seen—
once as they pierce the brittle air,
once as they dance in grace beneath the stream.

In air these trees stand rough and raw,
branch angular in stark design—
in water shimmer constantly,
disconnect as in a dream,
shadowy but more alive
than what stands stiff and cold before our eyes.

Our eyes at peace are solemn streams
and twice the world itself is seen—
once as it is outside our heads,
hard frozen now and winter-dead,
once as it undulates and shines
beneath the silent waters of our minds.

When rivers churn or cloud with ice
the world is not seen twice—
yet still is there beneath
the blinded surface of the stream,
livelier and lovelier than we can comprehend
and waiting, always waiting, to be seen.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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  • Every morning and every evening, I walk with our dogs across our pasture. Watching the dogs play; seeing Great Blue Herons, ducks and egrets in the lake shallows, and enjoying the beauty of the sunrise and sunset help me recenter and refocus. I’m sure you know Peter Mayer’s wonderful song, Holy Now, but here are some of the lyrics:

    This morning, outside I stood
    And saw a little red-winged bird
    Shining like a burning bush
    Singing like a scripture verse
    It made me want to bow my head
    I remember when church let out
    How things have changed since then
    Everything is holy now
    It used to be a world half-there
    Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
    But I walk it with a reverent air
    Cause everything is holy now

    Thanks Parker!

  • Gabby

    It is, indeed, so interesting how our life experiences and our senses come together to influence how much we see and what we see.
    Last week as part of a circle of people writing for recovery, most of whom have survived near the extreme of trying circumstances, I was stunned at the level of optimism I heard in every piece of work- perhaps 15 or more.
    I had read and heard nothing approaching such an optimistic take from those whose lives have been and are so very much more comfortable and gentle.
    I know that writing for recovery, or engaging in other practices undertaken for recovery, are in part about learning to see more and differently. Seeing beauty without great struggle to see it is an invaluable survival skill as well as a great trait for someone engaged in teaching, communication, or service in crisis situations. I think it can be practiced and learned.

  • Garry Coulter

    It becomes far to easy with our eyes closed to ourselves and others to just walk through life blindly. To look without seeing , hear without listening , act without thinking and become a little less human. But today I was made aware of someone, a relative by blood, whose existence I knew nothing about. Sometimes what we think we know , can get tipped upside down with unexpected results. Life needs hope and hope needs life if we are to survive , grow and yes maybe even learn something about who we are or can be.

  • Lynn Deen

    Loovvvveeee this and book marking it — thank you, Parker!!

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