You walk through life, aware of what you are aware of. How much are we missing? I was recently reminded to ask this of myself more frequently. It was a lesson of two shoes.
I was in Washington, D.C. for a business meeting. I’d flown in the night before and stayed in a hotel within walking distance of the meeting venue. In the morning, I rose and showered and shaved and put on the suit and tie that I’d brought for the occasion. Finally I put on my dress shoes and headed out the door.
It was a beautiful spring morning and the walk to the meeting was only a few blocks. I passed dozens of other people on their way to work. Midway to my destination, I noticed that one shoe was chafing the side of my foot. I laughed to myself, realizing that I get dressed up so infrequently these days that my feet had expanded in response to going barefoot most of the time. But why did only one foot hurt?
I hurried on to the designated office building and spent the morning at a large conference table surrounded by other carefully-dressed men and women. Around lunch time, thoroughly bored, I glanced down under the table and saw, to my horror, that on one foot I wore one of my nicest dress shoes, and the other foot bore one-half of the pair casual shoes I’d worn down on the plane the day before. They weren’t even remotely similar to one another.
I kept my feet well under the table for the remainder of the meeting, and positively scurried to the bathroom and back when I eventually had to go. Later I made a similarly furtive dash back to my hotel and across the huge lobby, thronging with other guests who I was sure were hugely amused by my ingenuity in footwear.
How had this happened, for the first time in thousands of mornings of getting dressed for work? Yes, I was in an unfamiliar place and had gotten dressed in the early morning gloom of my room. Yes, I was less accustomed to getting dressed in a hurry than I once was, back when my life included dressing for office work on a daily basis. But really; not to notice that I was putting on two different shoes, and to continue to miss this fact as I proceeded to walk ten blocks in broad daylight across busy city streets? My eyesight was perfect, so that couldn’t be the excuse. Had I really become so oblivious? Was this some precursor of early-onset dementia?
Ironically, part of the problem may have been my recently-enhanced vision, bestowed by my ophthalmologist in the form of a perfectly focused new synthetic lens in each eye. I was still wandering through the world in subdued awe, gazing intently at distant sights where I once might have been merely staring at my shoes. This was a good thing.
But still: I had been oblivious to something that should have been obvious, simply because I was on autopilot, overly focused on a narrow, immediate goal.
A lesson, then: never, never assume that you’re seeing the whole picture. There may be a detail, just beyond the periphery of your vision, that could change everything. In focusing several steps ahead, you may be neglecting something near at hand that is critical to the process. Look around the corner, or under the table; do the occasional mental 360.
Another, larger lesson: be skeptical of what you think you’re aware of, especially when that awareness conforms to your expectations or reinforces your belief in your own correctness. It’s often when we’re the most confident that we’re the most wrong.
Finally: when your feet hurt, pay attention.