We Swim in the Shallows, But We Were Made for the Depth

So Many People Look Without Seeing — and That’s a Tragedy

‘Cellphone’ (photo: suwannee lomklang / Shutterstock)

When Wendell Berry, the American agrarian writer, finally agreed to a documentary about his thought and writing, he refused to be “on camera.” We do hear his voice on occasion but more often the voices of others.

I loved the movie immensely, but one of the most striking phrases — one I share with you today — is the title of the documentary: Look and See. In the movie his daughter recounts him telling her to look and see the world, see what we’re doing to the land, to each other, to our places. Looking is not the same as seeing, which is a central thesis to Berry. He thinks the reason we’ve let so many places in America be decimated culturally and practically is that we don’t see the treasure they are. Destruction and loss seem to follow if we are reduced to creatures that look and don’t see. 

“Looking and seeing” can be compared to “tilling and keeping,” the primordial command of God. Tilling represents the work we do as lords of the earth, sons of God. But, respecting that creation has an order that is outside and even before us, we also keep it, meaning we don’t destroy it by our use and work. The Hebrew words used to describe “keeping” can be related to guarding or even worshiping. Either they go together, or things fall apart. Yes, we are lords of creation, but we recognize a higher Lord through whom our lordship comes, or it doesn’t come at all. If you work (till) without preserving (keep) then you are not fulfilling the commandment. Similarly, if we look without seeing, we’re missing something — perhaps even damaging it or ourselves. Many know what it means to be looked at but not seen. It is an incomplete, not fully human, or sometimes violent act.

Josef Pieper points out that charity (love) and prudence (wisdom) are both forms of seeing. In other words, the most important virtues of the Christian life are forms of sight. Faith itself is a form of seeing in that it helps us to see what cannot be seen by human vision alone. Contemplation is a form of seeing. To go even higher, our entire existence, which is ordered toward life with God in heaven, terminates in the beatific vision, when we will “see God face to face,” as Sacred Scripture puts it. We won’t just be looking at God in heaven — we will see and be seen.

We get foretastes of this, according to Pieper, when we have those moments that sort of startle us, when the hidden meaning and even the hidden God behind everything is sensed in a moment of seeing. When a sunset “stops us in our tracks,” for example. Or when we see a child asleep in our arms and the worries and care of it all melt away in a moment of beholding their innocence and goodness. Pieper says:

[The] most perfect expression of being alive, the deepest satisfaction, and the fullest achievement of human existence must needs happen in an instance of beholding, namely in the contemplating awareness of the world’s ultimate and intrinsic foundations.

In other words, when we really look and see we recognize (become aware) that the “intrinsic foundations” of the world are as God said, which means they are good. When we see something truly, we see its goodness, see God in them, see them with God as he sees, and find a foretaste of the happiness of heaven, which is the clearest and highest of seeing. That’s why a sunset is startling. 

It sounds quaint, but I think many of us fail to recognize that all we do all day is look. We aren’t good at seeing. We’re saturated in images and visual stimulants. Some of us suspect they are damaging, or at best they are distracting. But failing to really see is not just being shallow (though it is that). It’s a retarding of the power to be man, to be what we are as sons of God. Often, we think only of whether the content of what we look at is bad — pornography being the obvious example — but there is much more danger than we realize not just in the content of what passes by our screens, but the very form of the screen itself. The danger is being trained not to see. 

This is why scrolling must be some sort of evil. I don’t mean doing things “online” generally — I mean stepping into a stream of images and sensations for the sake of coming across something titillating, but not really looking for anything. Not only does it necessitate a looking away from the created world, making seeing it impossible, but it really only is looking. This is why the advertisements in feeds don’t really bother people. They’re accustomed to just trolling for something anyway, perhaps a product will fit the bill. A friend in the tech industry pointed that out to me recently, and explained that that’s the reason ads at the top of a search engine bother us more — feel intrusive to what we’re doing — because searching for something is doing something, and the commercial interruption is more annoying when we aren’t completely wasting time (not that all searches are exactly the best use of time).

Even if one were to find something truly beautiful on an evening scroll, it carries some sort of inability to capture us the way a sunset might, if for no other reason than we can scroll away — the movement away is too enticing to take the time “behold.” And it isn’t really there. It can look nice, but that’s it. If you think a pixeled image of a sunset can do the same thing as a sunset, then we are intellectually divergent at an immediate and intuitive level. There is no argument that can be made to someone who really believes pictures are as good as reality, if only because they can’t possibly know what really seeing a sunset can do. One way to know that you might be losing your ability to look and see something is if, upon being struck by the beauty of something like a sunset in real life, you “cap off” the experience by snapping a picture before moving on. Can you be-hold (be with it, hold it, let it hold you) without wrestling it into your phone?

If by chance something on a scroll truly strikes us as profound — an idea of truth — at that moment it is likely that you “look off” in the distance away from the screen. We do that with books too, but there’s a deeper need to look away from screens to really see the heart of something. Scrolling through a feed is usually visually “downward” moving. I think this is an apt direction to understand that it really is dragging our mind downward, making us less and less likely to ascend in the true act of seeing. 

We’ve learned well it’s changing us too — physically. Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows reminds us that the mind has a strong relationship to the material — the stuff — of man. Our brains physically change based on the circumstances we face in life. In times of conflict and hard-won survival, for instance, the mind is trained to scan constantly for food and danger to stay alive. This state isn’t exactly peaceful, but it is necessary, and the brain adjusts to it by “wiring” toward that need, literally changing the paths that information traverses. One of the reasons reading books and magazines is so important is that the place and form of reading have a different effect on the brain itself. 

If you ever feel like a book has a deeper and more profound impact, it’s because it does. Consider how determined the various religious rules are in making sure that the professed religious has time dedicated to deep reading and prayer. That time physically trains the brain to make space for greater depth of thoughtfulness, ultimately so that we can see God more clearly in this life and forever in the next. It is easier to pray, for example, when the brain is trained for depth — it makes way for what the saints call “the interior life,” the hidden life of mind and heart with God.

One of the reasons that I with a group of friends started a magazine was for this very purpose, that we needed something among ourselves to read and digest offline, together. We knew we were in the shallows, but we were made for depth. The entire practice is wholly different from anything “shared” on a screen. It is deeper, longer lasting and more impactful. 

When I am tempted to go over and scroll there is rarely a time when it is clearly taking me away from things I should be looking at — and seeing. There really is nothing to see on those things, just stuff to look at.