Keyholes & Skydiving

Brad Leithauser once took a road trip, during which his child proceeded to school him on the art of living.

While driving home from a wedding, he and his family listened to a recorded book. At its end, the entire family seems quite content, basking in the satisfaction one feels after having finished a good story. They had come to its edge, its boundary, its end.

Not all of them felt the edge. Leithauser’s fifteen-year-old daughter thought nothing of the boundary, of the end, and in her mind, the story continued.

But what was Rachel really like?

Leithauser’s answer, as one would expect from a teacher of undergraduates, stressed the intentional ambiguity that a masterful author employs. He gave the reasoning behind such ambiguity- and his daughter would have none of it.

O.K., but what do you think Rachel was really like?

Leithauser then realized that he and his daughter were approaching the story from two wildly different viewpoints: that of the box and of the keyhole:

Had I been still more articulate, I might have said that there’s a special readerly pleasure in approaching a book as you would a box. In its self-containment lies its ferocious magic; you can see everything it holds, and yet its meagre, often hackneyed contents have a way of engineering fresh, refined, resourceful patterns. And Emily might have replied that she comes to a book as to a keyhole: you observe some of the characters’ movements, you hear a little of their dialogue, but then they step outside your limited purview. They have a reality that outreaches the borders of the page.

The parallels here were more than I could ignore. I began to think of the ‘keyhole’ approach and to what other realms it might be applied.

I thought of creators- those of us who tend to think of life merely as an opportunity to create things. Writers, designers, craftsmen of all sorts. The one thing, it seems, that we all have in common is the keyhole approach.

Most look at the world as a box: it is what you see, and the established boundaries and rules need not be expanded upon. The average person will see a coffee table as nothing more than a coffee table. A designer will see a coffee table as an opportunity, a limited vision of what a coffee table may be. Then he imagines what might lie beyond his field of vision: he imagines what else a coffee table might be.

Writers take a similar approach to people. Where most see a person as the limited sum of the parts that they see- he is a baker who enjoys movies- the writer imagines what might lie in his depths. Perhaps he dabbles in cryptography, dreamed of being a baseball player as a child, and secretly chastises himself for not being the man his father was.

This keyhole approach little more than a capacity to be amazed. As an adult looks out on the night stars and sees nothing more than stars, a child, whose capacity to be amazed has not been narrowed by the mundanity of the world, will see millions of angels shining flashlights.

When most pick up an iPad and see it as an opportunity to browse Facebook, some will marvel at the fact that they can strike up a conversation with an astronomer in Holland.

It is those with the capacity to be amazed that create the future of our world, because to be amazed is to see what might be, and only when we see what might be can we make what might be.

Not coincidentally, our capacity for happiness, for fulfillment also lies in our capacity for amazement. Stopping to smell the roses is a habit only of those who choose the keyhole approach. I will not wonder at the astounding person my daughter is becoming by looking at life as a box.

Say I were to find myself in a restaurant, alone. Next to me, a man sips his beer, quietly. The box approach tells me that there’s nothing more to see here- this is simply a man drinking a beer. The keyhole approach might cause me to wonder what brought this man here on this night, and I may strike up a conversation. Perhaps we’ll become the best of friends, and he will one day talk me into my first skydiving lesson and take me to a ballgame to take my mind off of the fact that I walked my only daughter down the aisle the day before.

Perhaps not. Perhaps he’s an asshole. If I look at life as a box, I’ll never know.