There are things we can’t know instantly or do easily. We have to grow into them; our capacities have to develop, and our abilities have to expand. Quite often, practice and experience often precede skill or wisdom.
You don’t start playing golf at Augusta National or Pinehurst; you start on the driving range, or in the back yard with a cast-off club and a few whiffle balls. To become a golfer, which I never did, instead of a hacker, which I always was, you have to pay attention to stance, backswing and club speed; you have to practice keeping your elbows in, your head down, and your eye on the ball; you learn to follow through—to finish the swing. You hit buckets of golf balls day after day until you gradually develop enough skill to play without terminal embarrassment.
If you want to learn to play the piano, you don’t begin with Chopin or even “Chopsticks” but with simple notes, plunked out one at a time. Early on, you can’t even see Rachmaninoff or Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington, sitting atop the mountain of musical mastery. You’re just circling the basics, hardly climbing at all, but, incrementally and almost imperceptibly, you move a bit higher and higher.
Math doesn’t begin with calculus or physics but with basic arithmetic. It’s addition and subtraction before word problems, and multiplication tables long before quadratic equations.
Art begins with crayons, thick pencils and runny watercolors, with coloring books and cheap paper; with stick figure people and green ovals for tree tops and houses with a central door, four windows, and maybe a chimney—not with oils and acrylics, high-end sketchpads and quality canvases, lessons in perspective, the blending of colors, the dance of light and shadow, or reflections on the development of realism, pointillism, impressionism, and expressionism or distinctions between high art, folk art, quality crafts, and chintzy crafts.
Children who are learning to read don’t begin with War and Peace or Look Homeward, Angel; first, it’s picture books, then alphabet books, and then The Cat in the Hat or I Can Read with My Eyes Shut. Then, we spend a lifetime becoming better and more insightful readers.
Though I read it for the first time in my early-twenties, I don’t think I was prepared to read Shakespeare’s King Lear
until just a few years ago; I understand the old king better after having encountered the limits of power and the constraints of circumstances. And, I was amazed a couple of years ago at what a different book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
had become since I last read as a green freshman at Georgia Southern College. When I read it back then, I had little idea how deeply engrained and entrenched in the American psyche racism is, nor had I experienced for myself how a moving river can feel like a highway to freedom and renewal.
We don’t know how to love others tenderly and well—for themselves and for their good—without spending a good deal of time paying attention to them: noticing the widening and the narrowing of their eyes as they talk; what makes their eyes sparkle and dance or cloud-over and pool with tears; the slight upturn or downturn of the corners of the mouth, signaling pleasure or displeasure; the strain or ease, fullness or thinness, of the voice; and the nuances of their sighs—some with fatigue, some with longing, and some with contentment.
Learning to love others involves listening to the stories which they tell, especially the ones they tell often, because those are the stories have made them who they are. Loving others also requires facing hard things with them, including difficult things between us and them— disappointment in each other, misunderstanding of each other, hurt at the hands of one another, and anger at one another. Loving well depends on celebrating one another’s achievements, affirming one another’s gifts, and encouraging one another’s growth.
Loving another well doesn’t happen all at once; there are things to know which we cannot quickly know. They emerge in response to trust. We love respectfully so we can know truly, so we can love more deeply, so we can know more clearly, so we can love more wisely, so we can know more completely so we can love more genuinely, so we can know more fully, and so we can love more joyfully. On and on it goes: a glad dance of growing knowledge and growing love.
Poet and physician William Carlos Williams used to carry around a clipboard with him on his visits to his patients. It bore this heading: “Things I noticed today that I’ve missed until today.” He’d seen many of his patients for years; he had cared for some of their families for decades. But, he expected that he would notice things he’d never noticed before.
Time, practice, and attentiveness make us more vulnerable and receptive, and the result is that we notice and do what we couldn’t have seen or done before.