File Under: Vacation Memories and Profundities
A Spark in the Night: Brett Harris's "Man of Few Words"

Framing Reality

Cover-23-02 "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

(G.K. Chesterton)

Sometimes wisdom simply leaps off the page, and that's the case with a relatively short piece by Patrick Henry Reardon, entitled "Framers of the Gospel," featured in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone.  In it, Reardon makes the simple yet profound point that a framed gaze at reality, while imposing a limitation, actually enlarges our view of reality --- that is, we actually see more and, I would argue, are more free by virtue of the limitation of the frame we draw around reality.  Reardon draws a comparison between the episodic quality of the Gospels (their nature as a collection of bite-size stories) and framed art and the stage, arguing that both arise from the same impulse: "the need for a concentrated regard in order to contemplate the whole."  Essentially, we can better contemplate the whole, the meta-narrative (big story), by focusing on one mini-narrative at a time.  Reardon says there is a two-fold advantage in this approach: concentration is drawn to a focus, better helping us digest its truth, and the framing encourages humility, a proper sense that the whole truth is much larger and not fully within our grasp (as it would be for God).

I'd go farther than Reardon is able or willing, in the article at least, in two respects.  First, I would point out that this framing of reality is essential not only as a way of seeing but as a way of being and doing. Consider corporate worship.  If a frame is imposed on it, an order, worship is concentrated and given focus.  Far from being less free, it is actually more free in that concentration on God is focused by the forms used.  Or consider a more mundane reality, that of a toddler's playtime.  During rest time we would require our young son to remain in his room, giving him not an entire room of toys to play with but two or three select toys, like blocks, that had multiple uses.  He was more free and more creative, even happy, with those two or three toys than with a roomful of toys. His reality was framed, his imagination stimulated, and his sense of the possible enlarged.

Second, this focus and contrast supplied by a framing of reality is creational.  It is built into the way we are made by God.  Even the first man, Adam, imposed a frame on reality.  He named the animals. We can imagine that he considered their appearance and behavior and, in some sense, tried to give a name to it. Humans have been doing so ever since, not just in taxonomy but in writing songs and poems or painting pictures to try and frame an experience, to draw a focus on a  part of reality in order to enlarge our sense of the whole.  We not only need this framing or ordering, we inevitably crave it.

And yet our cultural distraction, our information saturation, has made it much more difficult to focus. Given the flood of tweets, status updates, blog posts, and television and internet images, we have difficulty settling on one thing, concentrating on a small piece of the whole when we are bombarded with bits of narrative from all over that usurp our attention, that beckons to us, that even appeals to our sense of pride as being someone who is "connected," "always on," "aware."  I think you'd be better off taking a few hours and studying the kinds of trees in your back yard, or meditating on a poem --- places where the not said of reality becomes more and more evident by virtue of what is said..  Truly there is a sense that you see a greater reality by looking deeply at a tree or poem than by surfing 100 websites or reading tweets from the 50 people you are following.  Poet Nikos Kazantzakis gets at this when he says that "Everything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics.  When you see them you do not understand them.  You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars.  It is only years later that you understand."  You need not get so mystical about to get the point: look deeply at something and it will give up a much larger meaning, or at least point to the unknown, if you are patient enough.  And yet we're moving too fast.  Maybe some of the problems we confront prove so intractable because we have so much difficulty focusing, can gather so much information and yet don't know (or don't have the ability to focus on) what it means and how it should be used.

So how much mulling over or reflecting have you done lately?  How often have you sat in one place and thought about one thing for longer than five minutes?  What's the last time you took one story in the Gospels, or even one verse, and turned it over and over in your mind?  Times like that don't come easy and yet the rewards are great.  We see more of what is and more of what is still left to know.  Deep down that reminds us of our creaturely nature and our dependence on an all-knowing God.  That's a good frame on reality.  That's the life we were made for.