Look! This word may be small and innocent, but it has so much to teach us.
Of course, looking is not always seeing, but there are countless ways to “look.”
In order not to frighten, one whispers the word to a child to direct her attention to a bright, blue bird or a mother doe and her fawn just off in the meadow. Spoken in a little louder voice, it is instruction to learn from whatever is in front of us, including writing.
There is also the shout. The loud recoil jerks both ears and eyes toward a sight of surprise or danger.
An army of prepositions or a corps of postpositions construct different meanings for the word.
Look up or look down. You choose. In "Les Miserables," the prisoner Jean Valjean and his fellows sing to "look down." Casting their gazes down protects them from the stare of punishing guards or, outside the jail walls, anyone superior, by often-misguided assessment. Sadness or shame causes our eyes to turn downward. We become downcast. We gape at the bottom of our existence.
In contrast, we also look up. Looking up positions us at the feet of teachers, spiritual objectives or the marvels of the stars and heavens. Looking up lifts our vision from the ground to the sky. When times are tough, encouragement and self-directions come in the form of looking heavenward. The economy is looking up; our health looks up, as well.
We are not limited to merely the vertical Y axis. When we look on, we become disconnected bystanders. It is as if our sight hits something and then just glances off. "Look on" also portrays the idea of distancing ourselves from objects: A crowd looks on while a man steals a woman’s purse and does nothing.
Using the "on" construction is also a way of indicating coveting. In today’s materialistic world of media, we look on far too often and for far too long to biceps selling cologne or beauties peddling the wares of the world.
Combining "look" with "out" or "in" invites us to examine the world from the vista of our lives. We all have lenses of experiences and feelings ground to our own specifications. Since we see through these glasses, our view of ourselves may be sharp with reality or blurry with feelings of inadequacy. Looking out allows us to see our fellow beings and our world of need. We look inward to know ourselves and to summon strengths we did not know we had.
To look around tells a story of discovery without rushing to conclusions. There is a sense of a pause, an assessment of our surroundings. It is exploring the various alternatives before us. We look around to see where there are opportunities to explore. On the other hand, we also look around for places to hide.
There are numerous other ways to look. We look shabby or look elegant. We look the part or look to impress. "Look" can describe how we appear to others. We do the same as we judge others based on how they look to us. We all have made decisions of others by how they appear. Someone may look scary or someone else looks kind; both views could be wrong.
However, we unconsciously look aside and don't see anyone in front of us. We look backward and focus on the past or look forward to the future and to the day before us. Further, when we fix our gaze on the past or stare at the future too often or too intensely, we embrace the negative or fears of the unknown.
There are other times when we do not look at all. We are blind to the fate of others. In a positive way, we can look past someone’s errors to forgive him.
Therefore, wherever or however we look, let us make sure we see.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.