Look Closer, See Me

February 15, 2013

Awareness, Focus, Mindfulness, Vision

Look Closer, See Me
Look around you next time you go out. Most people are completely oblivious of their surroundings, either texting, talking with others or engaged in their own thoughts. This state of mental awareness is known in law enforcement circles as Condition White, the mental state when you are most vulnerable to attack because you are not paying attention to your environment. Consequently, law enforcement personnel are trained to spend as much time as possible in Condition Yellow, a relaxed but more alert state where they are actively aware of their surroundings.

Condition Yellow is also the appropriate mental state for wilderness travel otherwise you are likely to step in a rabbit hole, tread on a rattlesnake or pitch your tent under a widow-maker. However, in civilization the sheer predictability of everyday life makes it difficult to remain in Condition Yellow for very long. We get so used to seeing things as we expect them to be that we lose the ability to see things as they really are. As Professor Stephen Kosslyn, director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, at Stanford University, says:

“For all our experience of a rich visual world, it seems that we take in no more than a handful of facts about the world, throw in a few stored images and beliefs, and produce a convincing whole in which it is impossible to tell what was real and what imagined.”

In the wilderness, there is much more incentive to focus on seeing every aspect of one’s environment, both things as they are and how they might be. For example, a large overhanging boulder can be an obstacle to walk around or potential shelter in a storm, baseball sized stones heated in a fire might make improvised hand warmers during a cold spell, and a young sapling could be used to make a snare in an emergency. However, in civilization, there is no incentive to think of, for example, a mailbox as anything but a mailbox so, in time, we lose our ability to actively see things as they are and might be, in exchange for passively seeing them simply as we expect them to be. As a result we lose our sense of wonder at the world around us and see both people and things in only the most superficial way.

Years ago nurses went through the belongings of an old woman who had died in the geriatric ward of a small hospital in Scotland and they reputedly found the following poem she had written, which vividly illustrates the price we pay for such limited vision.

Look Closer, See Me

What do you see, people, what do you see?
What are you thinking, when you look at me?
A crabby old woman, not very wise.
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you’d try!”

Who seems not to notice the things that you do.
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe.
Who, unresisting or not, lets you do as you will.
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see?
Then open your eyes—you’re not looking at me.

I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still!
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of 10 with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who loved one another.
A young girl of 16 with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at 20—my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.

At 25 now I have young of my own.
Who need me to build a secure, happy home.
A woman of 30, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At 50, once more babies play around my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.

Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing young of their own.
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel,
’Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.

The body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart.
There is now a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells.

I remember the joy, I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years—all too few, gone too fast—
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people, open and see,
Not a crabby old woman—LOOK CLOSER, SEE ME!

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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34 Comments on “Look Closer, See Me”

  1. cattalespress Says:

    Malcolm, you always manage to inspire us to take a breather from our Condition White state and make us be more mindful of the wondrous world around us! This is a wonderful post! Thank you.


  2. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, as always, thanks for sharing. It reminds me of a military friend who had trouble just getting back to Condition yellow, alert and aware of threats but not ready to respond to each one.

    He must have looked at people walking around, as though they were in a dream, or as though he were not quite awake to the same daily thoughts that most people have.

    Not a bad poem, and reason to think twice


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you for this interesting observation. If you spend some time in Condition Yellow you tend to spot other people in Condition Yellow too. Sometimes they also notice you and nod in acknowledgement as if you must also be a LEO or in some kind of security function.


  3. jan bowman Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the poem…….Hope you guys are good x


  4. Gregoryno6 Says:

    By coincidence I’ve just watched the first ep (yeah, years late I know) of the British TV series Hustle. The con artist’s ‘marks’, or targets, would probably be in a state of mind similar to Condition White. They really believe it’s possible to get something for nothing and so ignore all the danger signals.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Absolutely right. Forget about guns, knives and self-defense skills, if you are in Condition Yellow you will never be a ‘mark’ because there are so many easier ‘targets’ around.


      • Gregoryno6 Says:

        Hello again Malcolm,
        I’m just back from my visit to the States, and with plenty of time to sit and study people I was struck by how many of us these days are blocking out our immediate environment with one electronic device or another. People are so engrossed in their laptops or mobile phones that a decent pickpocket could probably do well for themselves – but the smarter thieves have already moved up to online identity theft…


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I suppose this will continue until we have all had a procedure to obtain an internet implant running special software that facilitates multitasking. Until then stay safe.

  5. Dapper Dan Says:

    “In the wilderness, there is much more incentive to focus on seeing every aspect of one’s environment, both things as they are and how they might be.”

    I wish I could do this better. When I go hiking with a good friend we always use that time for some of our deepest conversations about what’s happening in each others’ lives or what we’re reading. We went the other day talking and philosophizing loudly and then laughed when we realized a mountain lion or pack of wolves could be stalking us and we’d not even be aware. 😀 Seriously need to work on some wilderness skills and being quiet.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I think we are all guilty of this at some time or another. When hiking, I also find it’s very easy to fall into a hypnotic rhythm that lulls the senses, particularly on a well-worn trail. Incidentally I’m enjoying ‘The Frontiersman’ by Allan Eckert, a book you recommended some time ago. Those men were obviously in Condition Yellow 24/7.


      • Dapper Dan Says:

        Yeah they were definitely Condition Yellow. I probably would have been one of the first die back then. 🙂 Maybe that’s why I like reading about men like that because they are so far above anything I could do.


  6. Gerald Tom Says:

    Very nice. Gung Hay Fat Choy!



  7. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    I find it fascinating just how little we do absorb from our surroundings. It is quite shocking how blinkered we actually are as we go through the motions of our everyday life. There has been research to try and prove just how much, or little, information we actually take in; the outcome was quite dismal. Apparently we seem to take for granted what goes on around us (like we are on automatic pilot); also our unconscious mind manipulates what we actually perceive to be. We perhaps are not as in control as think ourselves to be.
    I loved the poem you incorporated; brutally honest, touching, thought provoking and heart breaking in a way.
    Bex 🙂


  8. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    I know this won’t necessarily appeal to you but, I nominated you for ‘Very Inspiring Blogger Award’. I did so because I TRULY think your deserve that title, and that award. I enjoy every one of your posts, I appreciate how you value your readers input, I also appreciate receiving your feedback, and input into my own blog. Big thanks to you Malcolm for being one of the best bloggers I know of.
    Bex 🙂
    P.S: I include the link to my nomination post, if you wish to follow up the nomination –
    Award Nomination For You


  9. Tahira Says:

    As someone who is perpetually in condition yellow, I applaud you on this post, Malcolm. With the rise of modern technology it becomes more & more difficult to get folks out of condition white and into yellow. I use to bemoan this fact and become frustrated – now I just live my truth & awareness.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Congratulations on your eternal vigilance. Of course, playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, I could reply that being blissfully unaware in Condition White can also be a wonderful thing at times 🙂


  10. Kavita Joshi Says:

    one of the most interesting and intellectual blog with facts in your blog…i never knew about these but I think when I am in India I live in condition Yellow and when I am in Australia I live in condition white… if I relate it to every days life 🙂


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for the kind words. The more familiar our surroundings the harder it is to stay in Condition Yellow. Like everything else in life there is a trade-off involved. In this case staying in Condition Yellow requires effort that you may not feel is worth the price. However, this is definitely something that comes easier with practice.


  11. Thea Christie Says:

    Ouch. Loved this.


  12. Anne Says:

    Thanks for this post. I have found that the older I get the more invisible I become. At first I resented this, but now I quite enjoy it. It means I can wander about the city in condition yellow and take pictures of things that others don’t usually see.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Men also experience this invisibility with age, as woman start to look through them rather than at them. Until now I had considered this a disadvantage of aging. Thank you for pointing out that it is also an advantage.


  13. California Kid Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog today and click on the Like button to my most recent post. Your blog is interesting and enjoyable. Keep up the good work you’re doing here. I hope to hear from you again soon. Cheers!


  14. Dagmara Almand Says:

    Loved this… and loved the intro about people living in condition white
    Have a beautiful Saturday and here’s to living in condition yellow!


  15. benvenutocellini Says:

    Must tell you one thing: these days we’re loosing the grandmother of my son…She’s 80…and probably she could have been the one who wrote this poem, too…
    I do see her …her genuine old soul…and the time ending over her story…The cruel life, and The beast – The cancer, are bringing her away…

    Love the pureness of this poem…
    and I thank you for sharing.


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