To Look Softly. As I take a a journey through Leunig’s simple, 5-line prayer, I come to this slightly obscure line. What would it mean to look softly on the world? Whereas the first line, God, Help me to Live Slowly and the second To Move Simply, were not necessarily easy to put into practice, at least I understood my goals: slow down; simplify. But this—look softly—seems a little baffling when I approach it with my intellect. I see the way I see, don’t I? Is it even possible to change the way one perceives the world? This line of the prayer tells me that not only is it possible, it is also necessary because there are places in my life where I do the opposite of soft-looking.
Too often I look hard.
God, help us to live slowly
To move simply
To look softly
To allow emptiness
And to let the heart create for us.
Looking Hard at Others
Where do I even begin to unpack my tendency towards critical and judgmental ways of looking at others? Looking hard creeps in when I meet someone and make an instant assessment of them before I even fully know them. It shows up in the labels I attach to people before I know anything of their story or the paths that lead them to this place. Addict, adulterer, beggar, braggart… and I haven’t even reached the third letter of the alphabet!
My hard, stony looks can only ever glance off the surface of someone. They don’t allow me to take the time to truly see, understand and have compassion. If I’m honest hard-looking is actually a defense against having to engage with people who make me uncomfortable. In deciding they are so very different to me, I give myself permission to remain un-engaged.
Yet in the midst of this comes line 3 of Leunig’s prayer – a plea to look softly. Soft enough to see the person deeply, not superficially. Soft enough to take time with them, listen to their stories, feel their pain, hold their hand. Does this make you as nervous as it does me? In looking softly we might just see more than we want to see—right into the heart of people’s pain and brokenness. Are we strong enough to bear it?
Looking Hard at Those Close to me
Sometimes hard-looking even creeps in with those closest to me, those I should perceive in the softest way of all. Here it’s not that my perceptions are shaped by quick judgments and false assumptions, or that I don’t take time to get to know the person. Rather it’s that I know the person too well.
Sometimes familiarity does breed a loss of soft-looking. The gentleness that we extend to friends and acquaintances does not always apply to our closest circle.
Looking Hard at Myself
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that I often turn an equally hard look at myself. In The Artist’s Way, the remarkable book on creative recovery, Julia Cameron spends a great deal of time teaching her readers to tame their Inner Critic. I suspect we all have one. Mine sounds like a particularly disapproving great-aunt. I’ve named her Matilda, and if you’re reading this aloud now is the time to invoke your highbrow British accent. You really should consider going on a diet, my dear. Oh, you’d think with all the free time you have, you’d manage to get your house in better order! It’s such a pity you haven’t instilled more confidence in your children. Nowhere is she more critical than in the area most dear to me—my creativity. In fact, she’s even peering over my shoulder right now, muttering, Who on earth is going to read this? Why do you waste time on this—what’s it called—blog?
Nowhere do I need to pray Look Softly, more than in the way I look at myself. I need to look softly at all the places I’ve tried, but haven’t succeeded. I need to applaud the fact that I ran the race, even though I stumbled and fell. I need to look softly at those areas that are not my strengths, and instead of comparing myself to those stronger, celebrate my own small victories and growth. I need to chuckle endearingly at myself and not always take myself so seriously.
Look Softly. The Bible is full of stories of Jesus looking softly at the outcasts of Ancient Jewish society, and I am encouraged that he looks equally softly at outcast me. My prayer is that he would help me to see those around me, and even myself, with new eyes—his eyes. Soft, love-filled eyes.
(Prayer and cartoon from The Prayer Tree, by Michael Leunig, Harper Collins Publishers)