Looking vs. Seeing

We all look at things every day. Do we really see them? What’s the difference?

When we’re driving, for example, we look at everything around us. (I hope! Put that phone down!) What we mostly see are threats, dangers, problems to work around. Is that car going to run the red light? Does that driver seem distracted, so I should move away from them? Is that pedestrian going to walk in front of me? That construction is blocking the lane I want to be in so I have to make a different plan.

We look at things like this all the time, but we don’t really see them. That’s not inappropriate for a situation like driving. After all, when the guy swerves into your lane and nearly hits you, you don’t really care what he is wearing or what color his eyes are. Looking is sufficient to take in the essential information to let us get by. Doing it is efficient. It prevents us from having to waste time and energy examining things that probably are not directly important to us.

Unfortunately, most of us go through life in this state. Things are happening all around us but we only see the minimum necessary. We get in the habit of not noticing. It simplifies our life and reduces the clutter of things we have to examine and consider. Simple is not always better. It can lead to a minimal existence. We are aware of enough to stay out of trouble but we don’t always appreciate the beauty, irony, joy, pathos that is swirling all around us.

But what about those of us who consider ourselves artists? We don’t want to just get by. We don’t want the minimum connection to the world around us. Artists and creatives should see more. One of our jobs is to wake up people to what they are missing in the world around them. That decision comes with costs. Actually seeing is much harder. It takes a lot more effort.

What do I mean by that? Say I am walking down the street. I walk by a door. On the looking level it is easily dismissed as “door is closed, nothing to watch out for there”. But what about what the door actually is? It’s texture and color. Is it tagged with interesting grafitti? Is it weathered and rough or smooth and modern? Where does it lead? When is the last time I say someone go in or out it? Does a door like this say anything about our environment, or about people’s relations to each other, or about the people who built it and their history?

Going through like this way takes much more awareness, more intention, more thought. And it is distracting. Sometimes we get lost in something we have seen and end up late to an appointment, maybe even miss lunch. It fills our minds and crowds out Facebook or the TV shows we watched last night. It focuses us on something we did not expect when we left the house.

All in all, I think seeing is a better existence than just looking. It is more rewarding, if for no other reason that that we are more in tune with our environment; with the world around us. It encourages us to take in more, to examine things more deeply. I try to practice seeing every day. When I don’t, I feel like I have drifted through the day in a daze.

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