Looking and Learning


“Then, as I looked and thought about it, I learned this lesson: A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest–and poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.”  —  Proverbs 24:32-34

There is a famous engraving by J.W. Steel of a young boy sitting with his chin cupped in his hands, staring at a boiling kettle on the open fire. The boy is James Watt, and he is sitting in his parents’ home in Greenock, Scotland, early in the eighteenth century, watching with fascination as the steam from the boiling water lifts the lid of the kettle with a rattling sound. His mother is chatting with a friend, unaware of what her son is seeing. But the boy is observing and contemplating. He is recognizing the power of steam to generate energy and the possibilities of harnessing this energy and channeling it into useful activity.

A hundred miles south of Greenock and twenty-four years after James Watt’s birth in 1736, William Wordsworth was born in the English Lake District. Left to his own preoccupations as a boy in his rustic home, Wordsworth wandered over the hills and beside the lakes, looking and learning. In his mature years he wrote,

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

Wordsworth, the poet, had learned to look and learn far differently from Watt, the engineer. But both stood out from their peers, who walked through life as if blindfolded to its visual lessons. Both were able to observe the world, ponder the meaning of what they saw, and learn from it.

The writer of Proverbs wrote about passing an overgrown vineyard. What had once been well cared for and productive now lay wasted and barren. He thought about what he saw, and he learned a lesson from it: Comfort and convenience can lead to ruin (vs. 32-34).

Watt observed, and his practical mind translated the data into scientific principles. Wordsworth looked, and he drew from what he saw lessons about the inner workings of the human heart. The writer of Proverbs observed an abandoned field, saw the folly of another man’s actions, and learned from the other’s mistakes.

It has been said that an educated man is one who has learned how to learn and never stops learning. He has also learned how to look and never stops looking. So if you learn to look, you’ll look and learn. And then you, like Watt, Wordsworth, and the writer of Proverbs, will pass on to others the lessons of looking and learning

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