Monday, December 10, 2007

Seeing Things Differently

Each day that I have left the workplace of my current employer, the vehicle I’ve been in has turned east toward the mountain range. I have seen that range in practically every condition: clear sunlight, moonlight, overcast, and in every season of the year. I have gotten quite used to what the mountains look like.

Several weeks ago as the vehicle I was in turned east, the mountain range looked different. It wasn’t just a little bit different. It looked a lot different. One mountain in the range suddenly appeared almost white, and appeared to have a huge split running from top to bottom. I wondered if something cataclysmic had occurred, yet no one around me seemed to give it the slightest notice.

It was a cloudy day. Normally I wouldn’t have paid much attention, but this vision seemed so out of the ordinary that it held my rapt attention. Then the clouds shifted. Over the space of a few seconds, the white mountain, which had seemed so drastically different, slowly faded back into the blue-grey background to look just the same way I have seen it many times before.

It was then that I realized that it had all been a trick of light. At the moment that I had been looking at the mountain range, an opening in the clouds permitted a clear shaft of sunlight to penetrate in such a way that this one mountain was highlighted against all of the surrounding hills. None of the sunlight spilled over to the surrounding hills, so that this one hill was dramatically emphasized.

After the clouds shifted to obscure the sunlight, it became clear to me that the split I had seen was merely a geological feature that looked like a broad, dark stripe running up the western face of the mountain. It had been there every time I had looked at the mountain range. I had never noticed it before.

We get used to our surroundings. The human mind tends to rapidly classify what its senses perceive so that the vast majority of perceptions are relegated to low priority. Thus we pay little attention to such things. Developers working on artificial intelligence find this factor one of the most difficult elements to simulate using technology. Our minds don’t generally forget that this stuff is there, but we don’t expend much mental resources on it.

Things perceived to be of lower priority can rapidly be raised to higher priority if conditions seem to warrant such. That is what happened to me the day I saw the one mountain to which I had never previously paid attention. On a regular basis we choose to ignore things, but in most instances our minds do this for us without any conscious effort on our part.

While the logic behind subconscious prioritization is difficult to figure out, it is a merciful method of resource management. If we had to be omni-aware of every detail about us continually, we’d go nuts. Automatic prioritization helps us cope with life.

As a parent, I find that my awareness of my children’s pursuits, thoughts, and needs works a lot like this. There is a lot of this stuff of which I am quite aware. There is more of which I am marginally aware. And there is a lot that flies under my radar. I don’t pay much attention to it unless something happens to raise its priority level.

My middle child is truly a middle child, with the next siblings four years and three years away. He loves his siblings, but he doesn’t fit well with them. The two older children are close to each other. They are teenagers and are in a world of their own. They are light years away from their younger brother. The two younger children are close to each other. They often enjoy doing things with their older brother, but he has to descend to their level. They can’t come up to his. It has been clear for years that my middle child feels like the odd man out. And he acts that way too.

A few weeks ago, for some reason I saw my middle son differently, much the same way I one day saw the mountain differently. He wasn’t different, but my perception of him changed in such a way that I changed my behavior. I used to read to his older siblings when they were younger. They eventually became avid readers and began pursuing their own reading projects. But they still often mention the fondness they have in their hearts for the years that I read to them. Often I read to them works of Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others. I have come to realize that the time spent together was at least as important as any information that was derived from the reading.

So a few weeks ago I pulled out A Wrinkle In Time and invited my middle child to sit down and listen to me read. Actually, I tried to include my younger children as well. My youngest didn’t take to it very well. My #4 child sort of enjoyed it, but became less interested as time went on. But my middle child has very much enjoyed our reading together. I have had to rearrange my schedule to make our reading sessions a priority. We are now on the cusp of finishing A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in L’Engle’s Kairos series. We may next move to the Chronicles of Narnia or the Hobbit.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I can only hope that in years to come, both my son and I will cherish our shared reading sessions.

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