People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for. —Harper Lee
I love the part in the song “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway musical Rent when the singers respond to the question “how do you measure a year” with a poignant mix of ideas: daylights, sunsets, midnights, cups of coffee, inches, miles, laughter and strife.
I used to joke that I measure my year in earplugs. My husband, an unfortunately light sleeper, depends on these fluorescent little squish balls to sleep and study, and he leaves a trail of them in his wake. (To be fair, I must admit that he measures his year in bobby pins, which I apparently leave strewn throughout the house in a similar fashion.) Since recently having a baby, however, we’ve transitioned to measuring our year in pacifiers. At any given moment and from any location in our (albeit very small) apartment, I can see a pacifier, and I feel as if I’m constantly picking them up, retrieving them from the dog, washing them, or thinking that I should be washing one before popping it in the baby’s mouth.
In addition to the detritus of our home taking on a different flavor, having a baby has caused the lens through which I view the outside world to shift. For an example, I am now aware of strollers and carseats everywhere I go, whereas previously these devices barely registered with me. Before, a stroller was a stroller. Now, I pay attention to wheel sizes and recline angle, and I especially notice when I see a baby riding in the same brand of stroller that we chose.
I remember feeling the same way when, after I bought my first car, I started seeing the same make and model everywhere I went. A similar experience happens when I look up a new word in the dictionary; as soon as I know the meaning of the word, I start to frequently observe it in books, the media and conversation. In other words, once something moves me to pay attention to a particular thing — strollers, cars, words, or countless other possibilities — I develop a heightened awareness for that thing.
Just as this phenomenon is true of physical objects, I think it’s also true of ideas, feelings and sentiments. This means that we have at least some control over whether we see the world as a frightening, hostile and scarce place or as a nurturing, spacious and abundant one. We can prime ourselves to notice the goodness in creation by keeping the goodness at the front of our minds, by telling ourselves that it exists and calling attention to it when it passes through our day. There’s a reason, after all, why all sorts of self-help books, mindfulness blogs and gurus of various sorts suggest keeping a gratitude journal. If we take time to acknowledge the things we appreciate, those things will stand out to us more, and we’ll cultivate lives of gratefulness and contentment.
“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for,” wrote Harper Lee. If seeing strollers and Priuses and obscure words like “orthopraxy” is as simple as looking for them through a more conscious sense of their existence, then it’s not beyond our capability to see the world as a place saturated with wonder, compassion, peace and joy. We just need to be consciously looking.
Reflect: What would you like to see more of in the world? Where have you seen it recently?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.