If we are asked, “What do you see?” We might answer, “Isn’t it obvious? I see what’s in front of me.”
Maybe we see the traffic around us making us late. Perhaps we see the partner who’s again doing that thing that’s always irritating. Maybe we see our child who is once more struggling in school or sad over a difficult friendship.
But of course not everything we see is sad or challenging. We see lots of beauty, friendship, and joy, too.
The thing is, though, most of us depend on what we see to determine how we feel. We are responsive by nature. We inherently know how, and are socialized, to read our environment and react to it. This is primal. Our ability to understand and then interact with what’s going on around us literally keeps us safe and alive.
Many of us, however, come to realize at some point that simply becoming skillful at responding and reacting is insufficient. This insight doesn’t often arise when things are going well. Rather, it’s when what we see disturbs, frustrates, or upsets us enough, and we begin to develop a pattern of suboptimal vision, so to speak, that we begin to take notice and ask new questions.
Ideally, we move from demanding, “What’s wrong with the world?” to “What could I do differently or better?” To live consciously and openly is to cease relying on what’s outside us for our stability or happiness. To live meaningfully and purposefully is to decide for ourselves how and who we want be in the world. Regardless of what happens to us. Regardless of what we see.
“Well, that’s impossible!” you might say. “Have you watched the news in the last 5 minutes? Are you at all familiar with the state of the world? How can anyone find peace, let alone happiness, when confronted with reality?”
Indeed. Understandable. Excellent points. Reality is tough. What we see is often unpleasant at best and catastrophically, emotionally, or mortally wounding at worst.
So we must reconsider. If it is at all possible to move with joy and openness through the world, as millennia of teachers and religious have wrestled with themselves and taught us to do, we must look at this differently. We must learn to see in a new way.
As Jordan Peterson tells us, “What you aim at determines what you see.” In other words, it is insufficient to simply see—to look at the reality in front of us. That will only keep us tethered to the present conditions, which may be less than satisfactory at best.
Instead, we must reach beyond the limiting and constricting boundaries of the present and decide to aim at something greater and above where we are. Something that will serve to call us forward into the future and towards our future selves. Only when we discern and define this aim will we begin to see differently.
If our aim is too low, it hardly qualifies as an aim at all. This asks far too little of us to result in any meaningful movement forward. Of course if we have no aim, if we accept that life is no more than a relentless and losing game of wack-a-mole, then we are doomed to a life of repeated frustration, anxiety, and hopelessness, which usually leads to physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion and paralysis. This is stagnation. And stagnation not only results in lack of movement, it also leads to the dissolution of creativity and curiosity and ultimately in an inability to thrive.
But, what if, instead, this aim is elevated and encouraging? What if it gives us meaning and purpose? Then, if it, even in a small way, represents the essence of being itself in its goodness, truth, and beauty, then what we see will not only reflect these transcendentals, but it will also invite us to integrate them into our own being. We will, in fact, begin to “level up”—to move closer to our optimal selves.
So again, if we are asked what we see, are we prepared to look forward and upward to our greater aim first before answering?
When Sean positioned his eyes in the telescope, he tilted it up. He pointed the lens to the sky as dusk was falling to look for the moon and the stars that began to take shape.
What did he see? The glory of the universe laid out before him.