The Virtue of Staring

The Virtue of Staring

Photograph by Denis Haack

Photograph by Denis Haack

It is September. The first signs of autumn have appeared. Hints of red and yellow are in the maples. Flowers in the pots around the yard that have blossomed so generously all summer have grown long, reaching out over the edge — they are leggy, I am told. The vine that sprouted spontaneously in the compost pile behind the garage is producing a steady supply of cucumbers. In the evening the dancing fireflies have given way to crickets, unseen while filling the cool air with steady song. We have been eagerly waiting for this time because it is when we can get away from the city noise, the construction cranes crisscrossing the skyline, from the sound of medevac helicopters coming and going from their pad on the roof of the hospital, from newspapers and the internet, from the daily routine of bustle and interruption, from life at home where we also do our work.

So though we live in the north (Minnesota), last Sunday we headed further north yet, to a cabin in the woods on the edge of Pike Lake in Wisconsin. Loaned to us for a week by friends, we have come to be restored, refreshed so that creativity can be renewed, so that the quiet of this place can seep into our souls. The last two days have been cold enough at night to warrant a fire in the fireplace. Weather of all sorts has blown through — at times so still the lake is like glass, to rain with gusts of wind churning up whitecaps on the lake and heaps of white foam among the reeds along the shore. We have eaten simple meals, taken naps whenever the mood strikes, and fished for sunnies and perch off the dock without a single bite.

Now our time away is almost over. Depending on how you measure such things, there could be some debate about how productive this week has been. The primary task we have pursued — with single-minded determination, I might add — has been to stare.

Poet Billy Collins names things exactly right in the opening lines of “The List of Ancient Pastimes”: 

First must have come listening

to the wind or regarding

the movements of animals,

then monitoring the stars

and sometime after that

scrutinizing fire;

but somewhere in there belongs

watching the progress of a river

In our case, it’s been a lake, not a river, but no matter. Sky, stars, animals, fire, water, and the vast abundance of creation — it all rewards sustained staring.

Like you, I was instructed not to stare as a child. “Stop staring, Denis,” my mother would say in a loud whisper. “It isn’t polite.” It is disconcerting to look up from your book to discover some stranger staring at you from across the coffee house. “What is your problem?” we want to ask. And there is something to that, because we can make a person feel uncomfortable by staring, or if tragedy has recently rent their being, perhaps even crush their spirit. Like with the subatomic particles that change when observed, our sustained looking is not a neutral act. So I repeat the advice to my grandchildren.

But now, here, I have a different thing to say, and it is this. There is virtue in staring, and not only do I commend it, I would argue that without honing the skill, we risk the shrinkage of both soul and imagination.

This is not a new idea. In ancient Israel, the third king, Solomon, became known as a man of great wisdom, so much so that “his fame was in all the surrounding nations” (1 Kings 4:31). His knowledge was not merely diplomatic and commercial — though he was adept in both areas, negotiating treaties with neighboring kingdoms and expanding the wealth of his nation and the splendor of his court. “He spoke of trees,” the record of the Israelite kings notes, “from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish” (1 Kings 4:33). 

Then too, in a collection of proverbs attributed to him, Solomon tells of staring at a field. It was ill kept and weed-choked, but it attracted his attention:

I saw and considered it;

I looked and received instruction. (Proverbs 24:32)

Hebrew poetry depends not on rhyme but on expansive repetition, where a central theme is repeated not just for emphasis, but to allow the theme to be unfolded. Saw, considered, looked: the careful construction of a thoughtful poet who builds up his idea in order for his readers to grasp the reality of what he means. Saw, considered, looked, and only then received. This was not simply a glance, but something more — the sustained observing of a man who had learned to look and not look away.

And so this week we have stared. We have taken canvas chairs out onto the dock to stare out on the lake, occasionally during the day and each evening to watch the sun set as color stains the clouds and darkness settles over the shoreline. Fish that have disdained our offer of worms have leaped in the water at our feet, startling us into laughter. Two industrious spiders have spun elaborate webs between the upright beams of the dock. Bats have launched themselves in the growing dusk swooping low over the water in search of insects. As darkness comes, the first stars appear, hard to see at first, but always on schedule. Loons are on the water, diving for fish, slowly making their way around the lake and filling the night air with their eerie cries.

Between the cabin and the dock stands a massive and majestic white pine. During the day, cones drop onto the ground, sliced loose by a red squirrel high in the branches. It darts down the trunk, always at a frantic pace, chooses a cone, picks it up by the end as if chewing on a cigar as long as itself, and then races away into the woods to hide it. Sometimes it pauses on the picnic table to deconstruct a cone, chewing away little pieces into a growing pile on the table to eat the uncovered nuts. A chipmunk also prowls under the white pine, looking for edibles and raiding the pile of sunflower seeds we set out for it on the cabin steps. Occasionally, the cousins meet, freeze, and then bolt as if mortal enemies, and though there is much scolding, we’ve observed no actual skirmishes. 

When we get too chilly on the dock in the evening, we go back inside and build a fire. It is a lovely stone-lined fireplace, so well constructed that the fire catches easily. It provides warmth, of course, and allows marshmallows to be roasted, but neither is the primary attraction. The fire is delightful to stare into. Even after the logs have disintegrated and the flames have died back, the glowing embers attract our gaze.

As Billy Collins notes, there is something about bodies of water, and animals, and fire that rewards staring.

The skill of intentional staring has been made obsolete by our fast-paced society. There is so much new to see that stopping to stare can be an almost frightening experience. After all, we just might miss something novel and viral — the topic of every chat room and all our Facebook friends. Like so many skills from the past, sustained staring will have to be recovered just as slow food, reading aloud, unhurried conversation, and honoring rest as essential to creativity, personhood, and good work are being rediscovered by so many in a generation weary of the empty promises of modernity.

Sustained staring is countercultural in our consumer society, which I admit is one reason I am drawn to it. It will probably be disdained by conservatives, who still believe the myth that hard work will always provide financial security, and by liberals, who still believe the myth that if we were all activists we could solve the world’s ills. But I am convinced by Billy Collins and Solomon and this past week, and by the fact that somehow, though I don’t know how, I have received a small measure of healing deep within the recesses of my soul.

Nor is that all. One time, Jesus was trying to convince His followers that even the simple and ordinary parts of their lives did not escape the attention and interest of His Father. He told them to go stare at birds and flowers.

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! . . . Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Luke 12:24, 27)

The world is fixated on mundane things such as these, He told them, consumed with anxiety over getting enough, but His followers were to have a radically different set of priorities. A primary allegiance to God’s kingdom would relieve them of this anxiety, not because the ordinary is unimportant but because the ordinary was created and is sustained by the God who has called them to be His people. Ravens and lilies, He insisted, already dwelt in this reality.

If I believed in movements, I would issue a manifesto for sustained staring, but I don’t, so I won’t. Instead, I offer this as a simple testimony for a simple act that has deep historical and spiritual roots but that has fallen into disuse today and needs to be recovered.

Our week away is coming to an end, and soon we will clean the cabin, repack everything we’ve brought into our car, and return to home and work. I will be sad this time is at an end, but also glad to be restored to the routine of my life and calling. Like all intense activities, sustained staring cannot be sustained endlessly, and that is just as well. As the days have drawn to a close, I have felt increasingly ready to return, with renewed confidence that I cannot just do my work but do it with some measure of creativity. And that, it seems to me, is how the cycle should occur: a period away for sustained staring to enable a return to the ordinary, with renewed hope that my ordinary is always within the notice of an extraordinary God.

Broad Places

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 5: Scowling at the Angel