In Malcolm Gladwell‘s enjoyable read, Blink, he builds a case for how to “thin-slice” situations. By honing our abilities to focus on small, but important, things, we can make quick and correct judgments. We have words to describe this particular gift of reading deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience. Basketball players have “court sense”. Napoleon and Patton had “coup d’oeil” or “power of the glance” when making sense of the battle field.
The ornithologist David Sibley says that in Cape May, New Jersey, he once spotted a bird in flight from two hundred yards away and knew, instantly, that it was a ruff, a rare sandpiper. He had never seen a ruff in flight before; nor was the moment long enough for him to make a careful identification. But he was able to capture what bird-watchers call the bird’s “giss” — its essence — and that was enough.
“Most of bird identification is based on a sort of subjective impression — the way a bird moves and little instantaneous appearances at different angles and sequences of different appearances, and as it turns its head and as it flies and as it turns around, you see sequences of different shapes and angles,” Sibley says. “All that combines to create a unique impression of a bird that can’t really be taken apart and described in words. When it comes down to being in the field and looking at a bird, you don’t take the time to analyze it and say it shows this, this, and this; therefore it must be this species. It’s more natural and instinctive. After a lot of practice, you look at the bird, and it triggers little switches in your brain. It looks right. You know what it is at a glance.”
Birding with experienced birders I find this to be true. I’m begging the bird with telepathy to sit still while I lock it in my binoculars so I can see the nape of the neck or a flash on the crown and Scott Smithson (who we’ve had the pleasure to bird with a few times) will casually tell me what it is without lifting his pair of binoculars to his eyes. He doesn’t even squint to see it. The lighting is bad but it doesn’t matter. It’s unnecessary. In a glance, he knows.
(Paul and I have to use equipment and squint):)
Now, I know I have my own areas where I can grasp the “giss” of a situation. Ingrid might leave the table, pouting, because none of her sisters will listen to her, stomp upstairs, loudly abusing them because “they never listen and no one ever listens to her and I’m always the one left out and …” and I know in a glance that her sisters have nothing to do with it. So I force a hug upon her and hold her until the struggling stops and change the subject, talking of other things, until I can convince her it is time for bed. She’s tired. She needs some sleep. Wherever we focus, our minds become more practiced in being able to make snap judgments accurately and so promote our success in that situation.
But where I wish I could get at the “giss” of a situation is in just plain ol’ ordinary life. Those who are great seem to have an early grasp of their destiny and rocket to it with lightning-like quickness. For me, it definitely feels like forty years wandering in the desert. I mean, I’m not complaining too much. It’s been wandering in the beautiful high desert with a beautiful man (inside and out) and beautiful girls (inside and out) and with health and loving friends and family. But, as to my destiny, I’ve wandered. Sometimes I romanticize the notion by calling it a pilgrimage, but other times I wonder whether I’m just unwilling to admit I’m lost.
In the old days, the stars, seers, strange prophets, angels, and other clear-sighted beings spoke into people’s lives. Today, we scoff at such things and whine about how we’ve nowhere to go. How I wish for a Flannery O’Connor character like a one-eyed priest to come into my room and point a thick finger at me and tell me what’s up.
Still, I have hope. As I become a master at grasping the “giss” of how to love my family and as I keep poking at the “giss” of what is really important in life as I write, perhaps my destiny is just around the bend. Or, I might find the path I’m walking is the destiny I’ve been searching for all along.