Ever since the first two protozoa were joined in holy matrimony, husbands have been amazing (and not infrequently aggravating) their wives with their talent for looking directly at an object and yet failing to see it. I know that my own gifts in this department are remarkable. Certainly it was of men and not of women that Jesus spoke when he said in St Matthew’s gospel that “they seeing see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”
While it’s possible to look at something without seeing it, it’s also possible to see something without looking at it. I will occasionally set myself the following exercise while staring out the window of my commuter train, stopped at a station, or when standing in a doorway with a view of a room before me: I direct my gaze toward one thing (a cloud, maybe, or a lamp) but purposely neglect it and pay attention instead to the other objects within my field of vision, though they may be out of focus.
Rather than the cloud or the lamp at which I’m looking, I will notice the treetops bobbing in the wind, the figure of a man walking by, the picture hanging on a wall, or the books stacked on a desk. With my eyes still focused elsewhere, I may try to pick out all of the horizontal or the vertical lines, or all the red objects, or the rounded ones. If you are able to do this, congratulate yourself, but don’t expect the world to understand. Any third party observer (your wife, for example, or Jesus) will think you’re simply not paying attention.