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!