Years ago during a vacation in Colorado, I walked out of a bakery with a friend and his faithful dog. We visited this local treasure as a reward of sorts after our morning trail run and hike. As we carried the best warm sweet rolls ever, I had my eyes fixed on our car so we could quickly return to our wives, enjoy the treats, and get on with the rest of our meticulously planned out day. When the sweet dog stopped us in our rush to leave, I noticed for the first time a man with special needs in his 20s on a bench outside the bakery with his mom. He lit up with a smile as he started petting his tail-wagging new friend.
We introduced ourselves to Paul and visited with him and his mother. We lost track of time and our agenda for the day. We mostly answered Paul's canine related questions to his mounting delight with the dog now in his lap. Taking our cue from the observant never-in-a-hurry dog, we slowed down even more in the moment and shared our load of home-made treats. After saying our good byes, his mom thanked us with tears in her eyes. The thanksgiving ran both ways. I vividly recall Paul's smile and joy to this day along with the lesson I learned to be more aware of things and people around me each moment.
One of my favorite teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes for me the importance of a fully aware and mindful focus. "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light" (Matthew 6:22). Following shortly thereafter in this same collection of Jesus' teachings in Matthew, he says: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12).
The "law and the prophets" emphasize a strong Jewish foundation of this Golden Rule for Jesus and his contemporary followers. Although opening one's eyes to recognize needs and then working to meet them is easy to comprehend as a teaching, it is a challenging lifestyle. As Jesus said after reciting the Golden Rule: "...the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:14).
In contrast to this ethically and faith-based authentic way of life, "living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see." Growing up in the 1960s as a Beatles' music fan, I have heard and sung this proverbial gospel-like saying countless times in the car or shower (mercifully for others, not publicly). The source is "Strawberry Fields Forever," released in the states as a single with "Penny Lane" on the flip side. For younger generations, this means an actual vinyl record for purchase at a local store to enjoy at home with a record player (before the advent of cassette tapes, much less CDs and on-line digital options).
Anecdotally, my understanding is that Strawberry Field was an orphanage in Liverpool, England, near John Lennon's home. As a child, Lennon played with friends in a garden near the facility. I have no idea of any intended link between the closed eyes line and the orphanage when Lennon wrote the song. Nevertheless, the forever image of whether people recognize and then truly focus on helping orphans and others in obvious need is striking.
What do we choose to "see" —or not — each day? My mind is too often lost and distracted from present surroundings via preoccupation with the past, future, or anything other than now. Thus, I miss opportunities to help others and enrich my own experience. Paying attention to others with clarity is the first step toward active charity, a priority shared by all legitimate faith traditions. I think that is what Jesus meant in his teaching and life-model. He asked his followers to look and recognize need (a healthy eye), then respond by actually helping others (using our healthy body now full of light).
In 1967, the Beatles also released one of their best and most creative albums, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." One of the tracts, "Fixing a Hole," describes restoring the pleasure of a wandering mind by closing a hole where rain gets in.
Personally, my overactive mind easily thinks in a multifaceted range far removed from today. Rather than habitually dispersed thoughts, I prefer to "fix" my mind in a different way, aspiring toward a sharp moment-by-moment focus. More particularly, I want my mind centered on others with full awareness of potential needs and opportunities around me right now and followed by appropriate response action.
This essential shift in perspective involves full attention and discipline, but it is never too late to start or resume the hard work toward a narrow and meaningful path of life. As a line toward the end of "Fixing a Hole" captures it: "I'm taking the time for a number of things that weren't important yesterday."
Walt Shelton is part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads small discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin.