Last week I attended a leadership conference featuring David Brooks, PBS commentator and columnist for the New York Times. He covered many issues in his three talks, and one I want to share with you concerns the attention we give other people.
David said he recently was working alone at home one evening when his wife came in the front door. He looked up to see her and realized she hadn’t yet noticed him sitting at his desk in the adjacent room. He decided to simply watch her for a minute. After she closed the door behind her, she put her things down, and paused. The house was quiet. She then turned and walked into the kitchen. In that unplanned moment of simply observing her, he realized how much he loved her. He said the experience of seeing her this way was not just a visual act, but something more: he felt as if he was beholding her.
He contrasted this moment with what we experience often in modern life — looking at each other without really seeing each other. When we meet someone, we quickly form assumptions about them before they even speak and filter whatever they say through our assumptions. When someone we know is talking – even someone we know well – our busy mind often isn’t listening carefully to them, but instead preparing what we are going to say in response. “We are not good at “reading” others,” he said, which has created “an epidemic of social blindness.” The quality of attention we bring to someone else is a moral act. If we are truly paying attention with humility and genuine respect, we are granting that person dignity. We are beholding them.
I looked up the origin of the word. In Old English, the word bihaldan meant “give regard to, hold in view.” Modern definitions include, “To hold by, keep, observe, regard, look” and “To look upon, view, consider as (something); to consider or hold in a certain capacity.” If I was to add my own definition, it would be “to give reverent attention to a particular person or experience.” I kept turning the word around in my imagination and was intrigued with the possibility that to “behold” someone could be to “hold” that person’s “being” with a particular sense of awe and care. We are not looking at them with our “busy mind” but opening ourselves to the mystery and wonder of their living presence.
In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor described the factors that led her to leave parish ministry. One reason was that she had become weary of people wanting her to tell them what they were supposed to believe. She said her spiritual journey had not been so much about believing the right thing but inviting others into experiences of beholding —“beholding life on earth in all its glorious and terrible reality.”
Being with someone when they die can often evoke a feeling there’s something sacred in the room. I remember my sisters and I spending time at our deceased father’s bedside before the mortuary arrived. We weren’t just looking at dad, we were beholding him.
And I recall what it’s like raising young children. You’re busy all day long with them – talking, listening, dressing, negotiating, feeding, bathing, reading a story — and it’s a big accomplishment to finally get them into bed. A little while later you come back to their room to check on them. You carefully, quietly open the door and see if they’ve fallen asleep. Seeing they are, you sometimes stand there and keep looking at them. You now “see” them for the miracles they are. You may even think, “When they are asleep they look like angels.” In those moments, you’re not just looking at them – you are beholding them
Maybe we can try beholding one person today and see what we experience.
Imgage: Sleeping Child Covered With a Blanket, Henry Moore, 1942