How observant are you?

I had lived in my apartment two years when I decided it was time to invest in some renter’s insurance.  I had slowly accumulated enough stuff that the cost of replacement was making the cost of renter’s insurance look downright appealing.  Plus, the apartment building directly behind mine burned down.  I guess you could say I was feeling the heat a little bit.

So I began price shopping for renter’s insurance, and was seated at the local friendly insurance agent’s desk answering questions.  “Is your apartment building wood frame, brick, stone, or a combination?”  she asked.

I froze, trying vainly to picture the front of my building.  I was pretty sure the second story was wood, but was the bottom wood too?  Brick, stone?  Now mind you, I had lived there two years, and could not tell the agent with any real confidence whether my building was made out of wood, brick, or stone.  (I still wouldn’t, except that while I was writing this I took a stroll outside to look.  Just for the record, it’s brick on the bottom level, then wood frame.)

When I was younger we used to play observation games during family road trips.  We did the usual “I spy” and things that begin with letters of the alphabet, and after restroom breaks we’d drive away arguing over what color the floor tile was, how many stalls there were, what color shirt the lady standing at the next sink was wearing…  I always said I was going to be more observant the next time.  Clearly, I never was.

Our brains have an amazing capacity to sift through information.  If we could remember every sensory perception coming at us at any given moment we would be paralyzed with information overload.  With advances in technology we have at our finger tips more and more complex computer systems with larger and larger memory storage, but still, they do not compare to the instantaneous ability for the brain to filter through the colors, sounds, feelings, and smells and identify, without us even consciously pondering the situation, the all-important conclusion that the second stall on the left is empty.  And really, as long as you can tell that, who cares what color the tile is?

I’ve heard it said that Einstein always had to look up his number in the phone book because he didn’t want to waste valuable brain cells storing information that could easily be obtained elsewhere.  Whether true or not, the anecdote does make me feel better for having to walk outside to see what kind of material my apartment building is made of.  It also raises an interesting point.  While I clearly have no problem ignoring the finer nuances of my immediate environment, it’s not always so easy to sift through the sensory overload of life in order to remain focused on what is truly important.  Too often I find myself like Martha (Luke 10:38-42), carried away by an infinite string of details that would be better left alone.  I spend hours adjusting the color palette on a PowerPoint presentation when what really matters is the message.  I fret over menu items when what really matters is spending time with friends.  I carefully wrap presents when what really matters is something that can never be wrapped and ribboned.  It is times like these I must consciously step back and ask myself, “In this situation, what really matters?”  And then ask God for the focus to go and do that one important thing.

Sometimes being observant is less about noticing the details and more about noticing what is most important.  Then pursuing it with all the urgency of a road trip rest stop.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

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