Last week my niece Lindsey and I decided to take advantage of what will probably be the last hot day of 2013 in the Pacific Northwest by heading up to Baker Lake for a few hours of sunbathing, swimming, and picnicking. We chose the Swamp Creek Campground beach area, a site we had never been before, having previously chosen Shannon Creek or Panorama Point, other lovely locations; Swamp Creek has a much larger beach and swim area. On a September Wednesday, when most people are back at school or work, we had the place almost to ourselves.
We set up our beach chairs and our picnic lunch on a little flat area a few feet above the beach, overlooking the sun-drenched expanse of Baker Lake. From there we both noticed wide alternating ribbons of dark and light in the water, although neither of us mentioned it to the other. I attributed it to cloud shadows, overlooking the fact that it was a perfectly cloudless day.
When we finally soaked up enough sun to want to get into the lake, we ventured ankle deep into what looked like very shallow water. But the sand there, unlike at other beaches in the area, is very soft, and we sank in almost up to our knees and started sliding toward a much deeper spot in the water—water which was cold, at least at first, so we didn’t really want to move into it quite that quickly! We finally got safely all the way in and realized we could stand up straight with our heads out of the water.
Lindsey wondered aloud, then, if she could swim all the way over to a log we saw some way out. She is a good swimmer (a lifeguard, even) and I was sure she could do it. So she started walking towards it until it got deep enough to swim the rest of the way. Except it didn’t.
She walked until the water came up to her shoulders, but then I could see more and more of her. The water was actually getting shallower! Then deeper! Then shallower! Eventually I followed her, and we discovered that we could walk almost halfway across the lake without needing to swim more than a stroke or two every now and then—good news for a clunky swimmer such as myself.
The “cloud shadows” we had seen from the beach were not cloud shadows at all. They were the deeper trenches between shallowly submerged sandbars that extended in bands quite far across the lake. It struck me that we had had the big picture, the bird’s eye view, but it had no meaning—or rather, incorrect meaning—for us because we had spent no time in the trenches, experiencing it at the water level. When we got out of the lake to dry off and warm up, and we looked back out over the water, we realized what we were seeing. The big picture couldn’t make sense until we had the little picture.
I think about how often I have ideas and opinions—about my own life, my church, my community, my country, my world, my neighbor, the person driving in front of me, the check out procedures at the library, the customer service at the local cable company—and I think I have the bird’s eye view, the big picture, and that my opinions are clearly logical. I have answers! (Truth be told, I often have judgments.)
But I haven’t always walked in the trenches first to see which details of the bird’s eye view are actually relevant, important, meaningful, or even accurate. How do I know how insurmountable the obstacles really are until I attempt the course? How do I know I can handle deep water until I’ve tried it? How do I know where the trenches and sandbars lie? How do I grasp proportions and measurements and hidden dangers? How do I understand the costs? How do I know when I’m just plain wrong or when I’m seeing something other than what I think I’m seeing? Having the bird’s eye view does not mean I have eagle-eye vision! Or to put in another way: knowledge does not equal wisdom.
The implications are many: I need to be cautious with my untested opinions. I need to spend time at the micro level, testing the waters myself, so to speak, before I offer solutions. I need empathy for others’ limitations and awareness of my own. I need humility regarding my own knowledge and observational skill. I need patience and a willingness to get wet or cold or sweaty or dirty—or involved. Then, perhaps, I can step back and make sense of the big picture and actually be of use—to myself or to others.
Another implication is that I would be wise to take advice from those who have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, instead of those who merely study from the vantage point of the ivory tower. The ideal advisors, perhaps, are those who have tested their assumptions and hypotheses in the field, then returned to the tower to reflect and study some more and thoughtfully formulate their advice. They wait until they have travelled before they write the travel guide.
Jesus modeled this. He always has the God’s eye view, of course, and unlike our bird’s eye view, his view is perfect. But he entered our story anyway, experienced our view, identified with us, suffered with us, and then offered us hope. We were ready to listen, then, because he had walked our walk first.
I have ideas, lots of them, about lots of things. But age has taught me this: ideas are cheap. Until I’m willing to put feet under them, I don’t really know if they have any merit. And putting feet under them requires engagement and testing at ground (or water) level, no matter how sure I think I am of the big picture. It requires me to come alongside and enter in and identify with the problem I hope to solve. Spectator seats have limited value in producing true discernment.
We need the big picture, absolutely. But it’s more useful if we also have the little picture, then the big picture again, this time with the important details mapped.