Missing the Forest for the Trees


I have a tendency to look down while I hike.

This is not inherently a bad thing, of course. I am on the lookout for things that might trip me up, like a tree limb or a moss-covered rock.

I noticed, however, that in the wake of my ankle injury some years ago, my focus while hiking was almost completely on the terrain of the trail. And for good reason. I did not want to do anything that might reinjure my ankle or bring about such excruciating pain.

Not surprising, then, was my laser focus on the root sticking up on the trail, or the suspiciously deep leaf pile. Now, that’s an interesting design—is it a snake? Is it a copperhead? There’s a significant step down. Watch your step. There’s a significant step up. Look for a handhold.

Yes. It is safe to assume that my hiking trips have—for the most part-- been free of injury and harm. But they haven’t been particularly enjoyable hikes, either. I placed so much emphasis on the path that I had missed the journey. Absent were the towering trees, the birds, the views and the vistas because I was so focused on looking down.

I have a tendency to look down while I live.

This is not an entirely bad thing, of course. There’s much to pay attention to in this world. If one’s not careful, you’ll miss the due date on that bill, or fail to notice the clogged gutters which might lead to a damaged ceiling. The mundane details and demands of everyday life rightly get our attention because that’s how we get further down the path, correct?

So, we move forward with our heads down. And for those of us who have experienced any significant injury along the way, we remind ourselves that we won’t let that happen again. When trust has been damaged, we tighten up. When our hopes have been dashed, we limit our gaze. When we have been victims of tragedy, we are constantly on guard.

And for the most part, our attention to the topographical dimensions of life preserves our sanity and (mostly) ensures that our journey forward will be relatively painless. But at what cost? Our children have graduated and left home, and we are filled with regret for the moments we missed because our focus was down, not up. Time passes so quickly that we catch ourselves longing to replay key moments from our past. At some point we will wish that we had stopped to look up, to savor our place in life, to be grateful for the gifts God has given us. We spent our journey focused on the ground, and we sacrificed contentment, passion and joy along the way.

Balance is an important course-correction because we know that life requires looking down and looking up. But before we can get to balance, we must first deal with awareness. Are we even aware that we are missing so much as we travel along the path?

A while back I tried to force myself to look up and around instead of focusing so intensely on the trail. I’m embarrassed to report that I was breathless at what I saw. The angle of the sunlight through the trees spread a delicious warmth in the mountain cove. A deer stood motionless on the ridgetop. An eagle circled the rocky outcropping ahead on the rising air currents. The autumn leaves shimmered and glowed.

And as for my feet? They never missed a step.

A while back I tried to force myself to look up and around instead of focusing so intensely on the demands and details of life. I’m embarrassed to report that I was touched by what I experienced. I laughed more. I was grateful more frequently. I saw God at work in mysterious ways and in dynamic places. I loved more deeply. I lingered longer in conversation. I was more gracious with myself and with others.

And as for my steps? Strangely, I never lost my balance.


Psalm 24
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?