Meditations in a Toolshed

I read an interesting essay by C.S. Lewis recently called “Mediations in a Toolshed.” Here are the first few paragraphs:

“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 recognized biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.”

This distinction was very important to Lewis and is quite helpful to us when thinking about knowledge. Lewis believed that one could not simultaneously look along and look at. (He made fun of stream of consciousness literature and even wrote a parody of it). The moment you attempt to put into words the thoughts flowing through you mind you are modify them. While I do not fully agree that looking along and looking at simultaneously is impossible I think he is largely right. Take the example of reading. Right now your eyes are moving your field of vision across the screen, recognizing symbols and combinations of symbols, which are themselves of hundreds of tiny colored pixels. At the same time your mind is categorizing the combinations of symbols, words, according to their function in the sentence and determining meaning within the context. All this is being related to the larger argument of the writing. All you are conscious of is the message streaming across to you. Try to break this down and it starts to fall apart, like consciously trying to control your breathing. The best story writers get you to look along their story, rather than at it. Under their spell you actually enter say, Middle Earth. When you realize this the spell is broken.

Lewis goes on in his essay to discuss which kind of knowledge is more valuable. It is probably evident that our society considers looking at more valuable. The outside perspective is more accurate because those inside are blinded by their experiences. This is a bunch of rot. Both looking at and looking along are valuable. I pity those people who live there entire lives merely experiencing it moment by moment and never stopping to look at it. There is so much they could learn by studying their lives. Then again I wonder if always being introspective and analyzing life is living at all. People who are mind instead of heart, thinkers instead of feelings, and intellectually inclined fall prey to this. They are always analyzing and avoiding experience because they fear losing their objectivity. I confess that it is far easier for me to look at God, than look along Him. He didn’t create me to just study him, but to be in continuous communion with Himself.

We find this in many areas of life. It is one thing to think about friendship, talk about friendship, study friendship; it is another to actually be a friend. Likewise, you could read all the best books on dating or courting, but until you actually fall in love with someone you only know half. The difference is incredible. The same is true of parenting, suffering, and worship.

I appreciate Lewis’ conclusion that both are valuable, depending on the situation. He ends by making the point that all knowledge is ultimately looking along. Look at a psychologist who tells you that “falling in love” is nothing more than hormones, chemical reactions, and neurons firing. What he calls thinking is nothing more than neurons and synapse firing, chemical and electrical signals in the brain. Someone could then come along and say the same of what I just wrote and on into infinity.

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