How ‘Framing’ Helps us See Beauty in the Ordinary

By: Brian Harris

In his insightful book The Remarkable Ordinary, Frederick Buechner observes that artists get us to see things by putting a frame around them, effectively saying, “stop and notice me”.

Often it is with very ordinary things, a flower, a bowl of fruit, a human face. The artist puts a frame around it and our attention is drawn, and we notice beauty and mystery in new ways. Buechner goes on to suggest that we should put frames around little moments of our life, and then stop, look, and listen to what they are saying to us.

I’m trying to put his suggestion into practice, pausing after brief exchanges that would otherwise be forgotten – but consciously putting a frame around them and asking, “so what do I see if I look over those last five minutes again – and again.” I’m finding it really fruitful.

First thing I’m noticing is that I’m not as observant as I thought. I can usually recall what people said in the few minutes I’ve opted to put a frame around, but how they looked when they said it, or the emotion that lay behind it, or how the people who didn’t say anything were looking – well that usually slips by unnoticed unless I pause and invite myself to remember. And it’s often the things I almost missed that turn out to be significant.

Get Curious

Second, I’m becoming more curious about what goes on inside of me during conversations – the reasons I might switch off, at other times lean in, or at other times interrupt and steer the conversation into new territory. Sometimes my motivation is good (my internal script being. “I think you are finding it difficult to say what you are saying, and if I give you some reassurance that I’m interested and listening carefully, you will find it easier”); sometimes not (my internal script screaming, “I really don’t want to hear that, so time to get a topic change”). Most of us are more complicated than we realise – or is it just me?

Third, digging more deeply into ordinary moments is providing me with tools to help in less ordinary ones. We (I) usually only think deeply about what happened when something goes wrong and an argument has broken out or something hurtful has been said or done. When that happens I push replay endlessly. Trouble is, I press replay with the setting at “replay from my point of view”. In that little echo chamber, my sense of indignation and self justification quickly grows. I become more certain that I am right – the other, wrong. But by framing and pondering on ordinary moments I have become aware of how much I routinely miss, and so in those more difficult moments am now more willing to ask, “so what did I miss?” The answer is invariably, “rather a lot” – and the way forward is often found through noticing what was missed.

Beauty in the Ordinary

Fourth, and most wonderfully, I am noticing how many genuinely beautiful things happen in ordinary moments. The kindness and goodwill of others is remarkable. Gottman’s magic ratio claims that for every 1 negative interaction we need 5 positive ones (it’s used as a predictor of success in marriage, child rearing, happiness at work and so on – and the basic rule is that for every tough thing that is said, you need 5 positive ones to keep you motivated, confident and growing). But here’s the thing. In my daily interactions I’m coming out at around 20 positives to 1 negative. I’ve only noticed that because I’ve taken the time to notice it.

There are so many overlooked and taken for granted little acts of courtesy, graciousness and kindness in the run of an ordinary day.

Put a frame around a little block of time.

I was at Bunnings a little while ago – actually, people were super helpful. Just one question, and I was accurately told which aisle I needed to go to. I was also invited to come back for more help if I didn’t find it (but I did). The check out person didn’t need to smile at me and wish me a good day – especially as it was self check out and went smoothly – but she did. She also reminded me that if it turned out that I hadn’t chosen the right thing, I could return it. The security person, being validly confident that I wasn’t trying to knick anything, waved at me as I walked past, and hoped that the rest of my day would be wonderful. (“Hope you have a wonderful day sir.” I had to push back against my instinctive, “Why did he call me sir? Do I really look that old?) And all this is very normal, taken for granted and overlooked in the busy flow of life. Just ordinary everyday goodness – and it makes life so much better.

Every Word Counts

I have often thought about Jesus’ claim in Matt 12:36 that on the day of judgment we will have to give account for every idle word we have spoken. It used to bother me. It almost sounds as though God is waiting for some juicy “gotcha” moments that can be stored up and used against us. A “You think you are good – well let me replay you your comments at 2:47 on the 14 of August, 1972,” nightmare, which ensures our perpetual humiliation and embarrassment.

But of course it’s not. The Gospel is the opposite of finding grace deficient for our more unfortunate moments.

So what is Jesus saying? Most simply, I think he is reminding us that everything is significant. When you want to see and sum up your life – don’t just look for the grand moments, but dig into the idle words, or the bored words, or the blah, blah, blah words – for in their own way, they all count, and they are all an important part of the story we get to write. And perhaps when we notice everything, everything gets a little better. Buechner calls it, “the remarkable ordinary”. And it is.

So how about this week drawing a frame around a little chunk of time and digging into it a lot more deeply? Happy noticing, as you do.


Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by pine watt on Unsplash 

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