Many years ago I read Bill Hybels’ biography. At one point he describes himself as more watchful than visionary—he might be walking down the hallway of his church with a more visionary person, and while the other envisions the things that will happen there as the church grows, Hybels is closely monitoring things as they are right now—the piece of trash which nobody bothered to pick up, the water fountain that is still on the blink, the flow of traffic through the building, etc.
Hybels was suggesting that these two outlooks were different personality types, but I don’t think that is right; he may or may not be a visionary, but I think a visionary (and any other type of person) can and should learn to be watchful. Watchfulness is an important component of common sense, a skill that keeps us fully aware of the current situation and the possible directions in which it may develop. For example, I’ve known for awhile that the faucet on the kitchen sink in the Bristol house is progressively coming loose, but I also know that it will be usable for many more months to come, and have decided that it is fair to leave it as a problem for the new owners to deal with. Similarly with the upstairs air conditioning unit; it has been giving us a bit of trouble but still functions properly, the repairman told us it has about a year’s life left in it, and so we’ve decided to leave it alone. These are just a couple of entries on the long, long list of things I am monitoring.
Watchfulness only comes if you develop an attitude that owns any problem you see. We seem to be born with the opposite attitude—if I didn’t see it, it isn’t my problem, and so I’ll go out of my way to avoid seeing things that might otherwise require me to tend to them (or, worse, get in the habit of denying that I knew such-and-such needed tending to). I didn’t notice that the trashcan was full when I stuffed my trash into it, I didn’t notice that the baby’s diaper was dirty as I played with her in my lap, I didn’t notice that my dirty clothes were laying in the middle of the floor of my room, I didn’t notice that the phone was ringing, I didn’t notice that the gas gauge had dropped below empty before leaving the car for my wife, I didn’t notice that changing lanes would cut off that other car. And what I don’t notice I don’t have to deal with.
When our friend Keith helped us build a closet wall, I was very impressed at how watchful his ten-year-old son was the whole time. He was always there with the right tool, or taking away something that was no longer needed, or asking whether a particular choice his dad made was the right one. He wasn’t always right—sometimes he would bring the wrong tool, or miss the need for one, or misinterpret his dad’s instructions. When he would ask about a particular choice his dad had made, Keith might assure him that it was the right choice, or remind him that we had changed our intentions about how to handle the situation, or sometimes thank him for pointing out that he was about to do something wrong. His son knew the key thing—he didn’t have to be right, he just had to be attentive and to ask (respectfully) about anything he didn’t understand.
Our kids are nowhere near as watchful as we want them to be, and I’ve written before about our shortcomings as parents that have led to that. So one of the many projects we’re engaged in is teaching them to develop a watchful attitude. We not only point out things they need to do, we rebuke them—sometimes gently, sometimes harshly—when they fail to take proper initiative and handle those things without being told. It’s a drawn-out struggle, and one we stick with more through faith than through any evidence that we are winning the fight.
But there is evidence that progress is being made with all of them. I notice it mostly with Chris these days, since we are doing so much work side by side. Often he fails to do what looks like the simplest of things—move a heavy bucket that has been in his and my way the last twenty times we walked through a doorway; put away a tool we are done with; take the time to make sure the piece he is about to fasten is properly aligned; take out an overflowing trash bag. And yet there are many times when he does exactly those things, without being told, and I have to remind myself to notice them and mark them down as progress.
In fact, we’re getting to matters so subtle that I don’t always know how to explain it to him. Recently we were fastening pieces of drywall to our new closet frames. We fell into a pattern that is increasingly common now for us; he gets to do most of the execution (which means he gets to use most of the fun tools) while I stick with the planning. So I was taking measurements and figuring out how to cut the needed pieces out of our big 4’x8′ panels of drywall, while he actually measured off and cut the needed pieces; then he did the job of fastening the pieces in place with screws, while I mostly helped align and hold them as needed.
At one point we had just finished putting up one piece inside a closet over a door opening. Once it was fastened, he pointed out that it wasn’t properly aligned with the side of the closet opening, but was two inches short. I couldn’t understand why, since it was the same length as the piece on the outside which was aligned properly. He reminded me that on the inside there was a two-inch section we had decided not to drywall yet, and so when I had held the new piece up I had aligned it to the wrong side of that section, therby moving it two inches over from where it should have been.
It wasn’t an emergency, it was my mistake, and it will be fixable, but it was still done wrong. I asked Chris if he had noticed that his side of the piece was two inches off when he started to fasten it. He said he had, but that he had assumed I knew what I was doing. Whether or not he really assumed that, or just didn’t want to take the trouble of asking me beforehand if the piece was aligned right, I told him that this was exactly the sort of situation where I needed and expected him to take the initiative and double-check a decision I had made. The decision was my mistake; the failure to ask about it, so that it might be corrected easily, was his mistake.