What are you not seeing?

Up until a few years ago I had never seen them. I didn’t even know they were around, so didn’t know to look for them. But every spring they are here. In fact, we are at peak season right now so there’s a good chance you will glimpse them if you look carefully. And it would be worth the effort, too, given how beautiful they are in their blues and greens and reds and yellows – especially the yellows.

Perhaps you’ve guessed that I’m referring to the birds that make their way north each spring, particularly the warblers that rest each night in the trees around us on their journey. There is the Blackburnian Warbler, the Magnolia Warbler, the American Redstart, the Chestnut-sided Warbler and the wonderfully named Yellow-rumped Warbler. The picture accompanying this column is of a Yellow-rumped Warbler that stopped over, ever so briefly, in my backyard last May.

For so many years, I missed this annual wave of feathers and song. While I have always enjoyed watching common backyard birds (finches, cardinals, jays, juncos and chickadees), I assumed that beautiful, multi-colored birds were a unique preserve of more tropical regions. Now that I know better, I’m learning to recognize the telltale movements of these tiny creatures in high branches as the sun warms them early in the morning.

Beyond the threshold  

It has been something of a revelation to realize I was missing this remarkable thing that was right in front of me. And discovering this new thing has actually changed my perception of the world. It has me anticipating the springtime differently. It has me looking for signs of life, beauty and newness where I simply wasn’t before. The world is now different than it was.

It is also humbling to realize that the world is not as transparent to me as I had thought – to realize I was mistaken in my confidence that I was seeing everything that matters. And if I have missed these marvelous migrating warblers, what else have I missed? What else is there right in front of my eyes that I cannot see? What beauty is there beyond the threshold of my sight that might change the world for me?

These realizations and questions cannot be safely cordoned in the realm of the natural world, either. In our families, in our online encounters, in our workplaces (the list goes on) it is possible and likely that there is more to see and discover than we have realized – more goodness to be discerned than we could have imagined. This, I think, is a truth that we particularly need to rediscover in the ideologically riven world we inhabit.

Look carefully

Our online lives, especially, have become echo chambers where our own thoughts and ideas return to us through the voices of friends and strangers. When we venture online we are affirmed in our view of the world. We are affirmed in what we have already seen and in the clarity of our vision. Our certainty rarely wavers with an acknowledgment that there may be wisdom, grace or beauty in those who think differently – that there may be a goodness we cannot (yet) see in those who answer important ethical and political questions differently than we do.

An inverse expression of this confidence in our capacity to see is, perhaps, a wish to make certain others disappear from our line of sight. Ours is a culture that, for all its vaunted tolerance, is only too keen to banish from sight those who run up against received wisdom. Ours is a society only too willing to define men and women by their ideological (or other) sins and to declare them irredeemable. This represents nothing less than a refusal to see – a refusal to be surprised by the possibility that there is goodness and beauty beyond what we might allow.

A yellow-rumped warbler is an unassuming and shy creature – there to be seen only if you are willing to look carefully. A flitting and fleeting expression of God’s glory, waiting to be discovered. And if you are willing to see him, if you catch a glimpse of beauty and goodness where you hadn’t previously looked for it, it will change the world.


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