I sometimes work as a church security volunteer. And when I do it, I get to simply stand and watch. Watch for someone sick or injured (we have defibrillators and wound care equipment). Watch for someone coming to cause harm. Watch in order to call the police. Watch to keep the children safe.
And it occurs to me, when I do it, that watching is incredibly important. I know this as a physician. It’s my job to watch. Watch breathing, watch heart rhythms. Watch behavior and watch for wounds. Watch families and interactions. Watch, watch, watch.
I remember when my children were small. Every night, before work or before bed, I would watch them breathing. Every night I would stand by them in the darkness, their chests risking, their breath rhythmic and barely a whisper. Some nights, wheezing and coughing, febrile, breathing faster.
Watching. When my wife was ill I would watch her breathe in the night. Put my hand onto her side to feel the rise and fall of ribs.
Sometimes at night, on our hilltop home, I hear the cats hissing and howling. The dogs barking. I walk outside to nervous animals. The dogs roaming and doing their own watching. The cats, tails thick as bottle brushes, anxious, eyes wide. Watching. I don’t know what spooks them. Probably coyotes. But who knows in the thick forests of night in the Blue Ridge?
We don’t watch now, do we? I mean, not our environment. We search and click. We watch our various devices. We listen and are entertained. We view. And it’s fun, no question! It seems safe to watch without purpose. To watch without a perception of danger. To watch, not because we are acting on untold eons of human instinct, but to watch because we’re acting on two decades of screen addiction. It seems safe indeed. But is it?
The thing is, there is still danger. And there is still, deep inside our old brains, encoded in the amazing base-pairs inside our cells, the need to watch. The instinct. The drive. There is still a sense, or a memory, that we should just watch.
The news should tell us this. Even though we live in perhaps the safest time in all of human history, we need to cultivate watching. We need to look and notice. To catalog and list, to practice noticing and recalling. To see what is the same, and what changes. To learn what things are where, what people are coming or going. This is what we should do.
Phones down, ear-buds out, computer shut. Just stand, or walk, or sit and look. The way our ancestors have for millions of years.
It may or may not save your life. But if nothing else, I believe it will enrich your life.