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Learning to See

I am an amateur photographer, and by amateur I don’t mean, as is sometimes implied, a gifted photographer who happens not to do it for a living. I just like carrying a camera around, hoping I’ll get an occasional good snapshot.
Once, a few years ago, I took a walk with a professional photographer, one who takes pictures people will pay money for. I watched him carefully. There weren’t any obvious tricks. But he knew something I didn’t: he knew how to see. He would see and take a picture of something I hadn’t even noticed. He could capture the world in such a way that it was beautiful, touching, profound. I was in the same places he was, looking at the same things, but I didn’t see them as beautiful as they looked in his pictures.
Since then I’ve tried to do what he did: to see the perfect scene, the location from which everything looks best, the moment when there’s an alignment of elements, the time of day when the light is right. I rarely succeed.
Life, I think, is about learning to see. Not through a lens, necessarily, or even with the eyes. But as you perceive what is around you, to preserve it all in your memories and expectations in ways that will make life lovelier, and worth continuing.
That’s not the same as “seeing things as they really are, not through rose-colored glasses,” as you’ll hear the so-called realists say. What these people see is a dark, unappealing world. They don’t try to align the elements for beauty. They look at the plain ugliness of things, and there is plenty of it. I see it, too. Both my parents died of cancer. Whole continents are corrupt, millions dying. Every other week brings another earthquake or hurricane. The ugliest of all is war—worse than crime, worse than murder, for it is killing under principle, so that we can congratulate ourselves as we splatter another person’s brains out.
Looking at the world in plain light is despair.
Some years ago I was visiting with an acquaintance in his office, when I noticed a photo of an attractive woman on his bookshelf. “Who’s in the picture?” I asked. “My wife,” he said. I knew his wife, and knew that although she was a marvelous person, she didn’t turn heads. Perhaps guessing my thoughts, “She went to a glamour photographer,” he said. On closer inspection I could see that it was she, but transformed by filters, makeup, expression, into someone more striking than she was in normal light. It was a pleasure to see her look as beautiful as I knew her to be.
We Christians dress up existence to look better than it is. We cast a kinder, more flattering light upon it. Jesus is the lens through which we look at everything, and so we see hope even in hopeless situations. We say that because we are loved by The Creator of the Universe we can be confident, strong, loving in our turn. We claim that even the certainty of death needn’t drain our hope, because there is life beyond this one.
None of this is apparent to the skeptical eye. This is a different kind of seeing. The skeptics say we’re fooling ourselves, and who can prove beyond doubt they’re wrong? But it is all we have. If we are to survive here, we dare not see in any other way. That is what faith is, and what faith requires.
And so we peer into the haze, trying to make out what cannot quite be seen: the full scope of existence, life and beyond life, time and eternity, scientific certainties as well as those things we can only hope for. We describe it all as more beautiful, more just and principled, more protected and cared for, than it appears to be. We declare it all redeemable, life a benison even when it is painful, people dear and well-intentioned even when they are hurtful.
And we say—we even act as if—that at the end of all of this, God will make everything right.
Something beautiful, something good
All my confusion He understood
All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife
But He made something beautiful of my life.
(—Bill and Gloria Gaither)

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