The way we see the world is not always complicated by being a matter of individual perspective. Oftentimes, it’s much simpler than that.
How we look at what is around us – what we see and do not see – becomes so second-nature that we are practically hard-wired for selective, and limiting, looking behaviors.
If you live in a city, like I do, “looking up,” for example, is probably not a way of seeing that you practice often. From a city sidewalk, the vast domain of clouds and stars can look disappointingly no bigger than a pocket handkerchief. The towering buildings, that are always slightly swaying, can give you such a bad case of vertigo that you could, quite literally, fall out of your shoes from a standing position on flat pavement. And, on the days when you may be feeling slightly more anxious about things, you may find yourself unnecessarily fretting about the near occasion of a plummeting pigeon or squirrel from a 15th floor ledge.
Let’s face it, most days, it is taxing enough to keep your attention focused immediately in front of and behind you. Especially, on those hot summer days, when you can see the heat radiating off the pavement – you will know what to do when your “fight or flight” radar short circuits, detecting a jaguar on the loose at lunch downtown.
In Baltimore, the whole concept of “looking up” gets a little murky because we don’t see up the way most people do. You don’t have to live in Baltimore long to know that up is not about ascending, rising, or reaching new heights.
In Baltimore, up is not about direction at all, at least not in a literal sense. Up is part philosophy, part mystery, and part declaration of final destiny. In particular, a destiny that involves meeting an untimely or an unfortunate demise – whether what’s come to an end ever had the breath of life in it or not.
Case in point. “Hon, you think you got problems, my Frigidaire went up last week, right when we were ready go down the ocean.”
I guess, by the same token, we don’t do much pure looking down in Baltimore either, at least not in the literal sense. In Baltimore, down describes pretty much any place that’s not where you are at the moment. For example, “I’m going down Jake’s for dinner tonight. Be back later.”
And, when down gets thrown in with a gerund, some part of the verb “go,” and the word up, you’ve really got something.
“Emmy, don’t go looking down at that phone crossing the street. You’ll get hit by a bus, and I’ll have to give your father the terrible news you’ve gone up.”
These are complex nuances of language to be sure; but, we know what’s what in Baltimore. We just don’t see anything unusual at all about noting the passing of a favorite electrical appliance or emphasizing that there’s just one sure way to get from here to there – and, it’s by going down. But, however we see the world, in Baltimore or elsewhere, there’s no doubt that an occasional looking up would do us all good.
The essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau saw walking, and also the looking that accompanies it, as a “noble art.” More than exercise, walking provided us with an opportunity to elevate our gaze – to literally look up and out into the distance – at the vastness above and all around us. One step at a time, by walking and looking, we would enter a state of awe. We would be able to see new things and to see familiar things differently. And, in doing so, we would be able to awaken the sleepy response of a heart and mind that’s been over-conditioned to sameness. Whether we were experiencing something as immense as the sky or as minute as the flash of a firefly, we would give new attention to the familiar and to what we have become accustomed.
This week, Caroline Center welcomed more than a hundred women from among several hundred who had expressed interest in our CNA/GNA and PT/CPhT programs for information sessions and interviews. Although it’s not specifically required for a successful interview, I would like to think that the candidates with the highest aspirations, the deepest passions, and the greatest grit also brought an ardent desire to be open to new experiences of awe. New experiences that will tell them that everything they once took for granted in life – the good and the not-so-good – now requires their conscious attention.
Psychologist Dacher Keltner says we don’t need to be at the Grand Canyon to experience awe – that “it’s possible to encounter awe in the more mundane observations of daily life.” People who even momentarily experience awe tend to be “more curious, altruistic, and cooperative.” Awe is the glue that has held us together from the beginning of time. Awe created our first real human bonds. Ultimately, “Awe creates a virtuous circle: Awe makes us kinder, and acts of kindness inspire awe.”
Mother Caroline Friess, SSND, our namesake, would have appreciated Dr. Keltner’s idea of creating an unending “virtuous circle” that is kept in perpetual motion by kindness and awe. It was, after all, Mother Caroline who said, “What cannot be achieved by kindness is unattainable.” It’s a good lesson because there’s truth in it. It’s a timely lesson because some have forgotten its truth.
As we welcome Class 71, we hope they will join the thousands of Caroline Center graduates before them in sustaining this “virtuous circle.” And, that we will look together with new attention to the familiar and always for the small miracles that are part of every day.
“What Goes Up” is dedicated to the courageous women of Caroline Center Class 71, who will begin their education and career skills training with us this September. We wish them a healthful, restful, and safe summer; and, we will look forward to seeing them after Labor Day, when “The Breakroom” also will resume its regular posts. Have a good summer, everyone!