Looking At, Looking Along

A modern manifestation of a Lewisean observation

Every morning I wake up to my 5:02am alarm, pour the coffee that dripped into the pot as I got out of bed, grab my iPad, and head up to the oversized chair in the bonus room above our garage. When it’s cool, I open the windows to snag the breeze and hear the birds sing their morning songs.

Since my daughter was born last year I’ve learned the importance of waking up much earlier than necessary to read my Bible, pray, and have some quiet time to myself to do whatever I want, whether read, write, or play video games. This is one of the luxuries afforded by being able to work from home rather than spending an hour in the car commuting each morning like I once did.

After I complete my current devotional routine, I have a solid 45-60 minutes of free time before I start work in the morning around 7am. As I write to you today, I have split that time. I spent about 20 minutes reading and am taking about 40 minutes to write this.

A Meditation in a Toolshed

A couple of weeks ago, during my morning free time, I finished C. S. Lewis’s collection of essays God in the Dock. He writes in an essay called “A Meditation in a Toolshed”:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. He is, as they say, ‘in love’. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man’s experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.

….

The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.

….

We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along.

This is Lewis at his very best, in my opinion. When he gives us tremendous, Christ-informed insight into philosophy and the quiet, taken-for-granted parts of daily living.

Of course when I read this essay in God in the Dock this morning, my mind immediately jumped to its application in our modern context, and I knew I had to write about it. For I knew if I didn’t write about it, I was sure I wouldn’t fully comprehend it.

The Social Internet and the Great Looking-At

In the context of this Lewisean insight, my thought is that our relationship with the social internet creates a context in which we are more often looking at than we are looking along.

Our participation in the daily rigamarole of lives that are increasingly lived online gives us the illusion of a cosmopolitan life. Whether we’re watching a European YouTuber, following a Brazilian fitness influencer on Instagram, or diving headlong into the world of K-pop, living life on the social internet can provide a faint taste of a life well-traveled. It can make it feel as though we are looking along, when, in reality, we’re just looking at.

One of my greatest concerns related to our ever-deepening relationship with the social internet is that we come to see online experiences as the same as offline ones. My fear is that concerts viewed on YouTube are viewed as replacement for the chest-rattling experience of a seat in the front row. That online church becomes a fair estimation of the gathered, local body of Christ. That a VR experience of the Louvre suffices for having “seen the Mona Lisa.”

All of these pseudo-experiences provide a fraction of the experiential glory as their real, incarnational counterparts, but my fear is that because of laziness, lack of opportunity, or otherwise, they are seen as equivalent. May God have mercy on us to not let it be so.

If some of the most profound experiences of the human life are reduced to shadows of themselves so that they may be turned into a form of content we can readily consume, we will be enslaved to a life of looking at the glories of creation rather than a life of looking along them.

There are consequences to investing inordinate amounts of time, energy, and interest in mediated realities via screens and timelines. One of those consequences is that, though we may get to see and experience more of the world in some bastardized sort of way, it will all be a bit less wonderful.

The food at a buffet is never quite as good as food specially and uniquely prepared. Let’s not make every profound experience of human life a dish on a buffet. Let’s be willing to forsake looking at the world, experiencing it secondhand or mediated by a screen, and let’s look along the world, enjoying it in all of its depth and wonder, even if it means we don’t get to experience quite as much of it on this side of eternity.