by Mike Phay
The day was damp, overcast, and cool. The majesty of the ice-cut valleys of Glacier National Park was largely hidden in low-hanging cloud cover. The spring run-off was calling attention to itself, filling out the edges of Two Medicine Creek, tickling the high water mark, and then careening carelessly over the 20-foot drop into the broiling pool below.
We stood at the base of Running Eagle Falls, cameras and phones in hand. The teenage boys had climbed beyond the railing—the limits of civilization—intent to memorialize this place and moment, “selfie”-style. They would, in due time, remember the experience itself, while largely ignoring its digitized copies.
My teenage daughter and I stood at the rail—phones pocketed and camera lenses covered, drinking and breathing in beauty with each of our senses—while couples and families, groups of all shapes and sizes, ages, and nationalities came and went. Some took in the experience momentarily, quickly departing, while others slowed down for several minutes of peace and quiet. Through all of the people movement, our visit lingered on. We were present, unhurried, serene.
One older couple approached and snapped a few photos. After not more than sixty seconds, the husband spoke up: “Let’s go. I’ve seen it. It’s not gonna change if I keep looking at it.” He glanced at me with a smirk and a nod and the knowingness of a fellow man: American, efficient, and accomplished.
And off they went, unaffected and unchanged in the presence of beauty. Taking in a landmark rather than an experience. Checking beauty off the list as if it were something that could be controlled, captured, and cataloged—then bragged about.
I nodded politely back to the gentleman and returned my attention to the waterfall. Contrary to his bold assertion, each moment brought with it the realization of everything I had missed—the fact that I hadn’t really seen it yet at all. The longer I beheld the beauty, the more beauty I knew that I was missing. And the longer I looked, the more it actually did change.
Just seconds after this older coupled turned to make their way back to their comfortable, climate controlled, all-wheel-drive tourist vehicle, the clouds broke. Sun shone on the glistening water, revealing a beauty previously unseen, unwitnessed. As I stood, camera-less, I saw the instantaneous change—constant and unending—and I looked, transfixed, as millions of water droplets captured and refracted light in ways that could not and never would be mimicked. The change—which had not been there in the previous moment—was stunning. Then as quickly as it had come, the sunlight was again obscured behind the fast-moving cloud. The torrent continued and the waterfall as an object continued to exist, even as it was before.
But the nature of waterfalls is one of constant change. No two moments of a waterfall are the same. They move forward incessantly, ever flowing, rushing past, creating an infinite string of moments. All moments of beauty, none to be slighted. To proclaim “I’ve seen it” is a contradiction in terms. This kind of beauty can never be over-seen, each moment extremely valuable in its own right.
And in that moment it seemed to me that to refrain from capturing the moment with a lens—or checking it off a list—was getting closer to the nature of the moment itself. I was taking in its beauty.
Taking in beauty does not come easily to me. An achiever by nature, I instinctively pursue productivity and value completion. I often find the unknown, unrestrained, and uncontrollable pieces of life—categories into which beauty often falls—best left for someone else to handle. I am a moment capturer, not a moment experiencer. And the moment that is best captured for me is the one where everything is finished and complete: Been there. Done that. Seen it. Let’s move on. Our purpose is to get to the destination, not to enjoy the trip.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve become a bit more enamored with the process, not just the destination. This has happened with the difficult realization that the destination is not already—and may never be—reached. As a husband, father, pastor, and leader, there are plenty of people depending on me to get them to a destination. And they are not necessarily thinking of the destination as much as they are longing to be loved in the midst of the journey.
We could think of the people who flow into and out of our lives as the individual moments of a waterfall. When we fail to attend to each of these God-imaging individuals who’ve been entrusted to us—even if just for a moment, a blink of an eye—then we miss the beauty that God intended for us to see, to experience, and to love. If we choose to simply catalog and check them off our lists as objects or projects, then we fail to give them the dignity God has infused into them, along with the care and attention required of us by the command to love.
It is the intangible, un-captured, fast-moving—and often messy—moments to which I am to attend. To change metaphors, it is the one car of the many hundreds that pass by on the highway every day—with that particular family in it, struggling with that particular issue, grieving that particular loss, celebrating that particular blessing. The important thing is neither the freeway nor the car, but the folks inside. Those are the ones: the souls with whom I’ve been entrusted, even if just for a moment. And if I’m unable to see the car for the traffic, the particular and radiant beauty within the moment, or the individual above and beyond the task, then truly I have lost sight of my purpose.
In standing and experiencing the beauty of a waterfall, it dawned on me that God gives us these moments of beauty-noticing—slowing down and unplugging from a digital, deadline world—to wake us up to the mystery and the beauty inherent in all of life. Our lives often move at freeway speed—detached from and unaware of the cars around us, the people we travel with, and even the stirrings and struggles in our own souls.
So why not take a moment and unplug? Notice the world and the people that God has placed around you. Hunt for beauty. And as you turn your smartphone off and forego a selfie (just this once), take notice of the small, the mundane, the regular. Keep yourself from moving past without noticing. Take time to savor without having to control, catalog, or capture the moment. Each of these moments is a gift, just as each soul is a gift. Maybe as we slow down and take them as such, we will truly see them for what they are.