Subtle is not a word that gets a lot of use lately. It almost seems old-fashioned. I believe it’s because much of our current approach to living runs counter to things that I would call subtle. Subtle things are often difficult and challenging to describe because they are often not in full view – they’re often obscured. My idea of subtle includes things like a monochromatic landscape, the imperceptible wrinkling of a brow, the witty and smart kinds of humor that require me to think, or a simple, but profound idea that must be carefully examined and considered before accepting or dismissing it.
These days, what we are more familiar with, are the loud things, the outrageous, the utterly inescapable stimuli that overwhelm us. These things tend to grab and keep our attention the longest.
Subtle things usually work on you in very different ways. They wash over you slowly, quietly, and sometimes mysteriously. Over time, they can find a way into your heart and psyche through repetition, careful observations, or osmosis. Subtle humor, ideas, art, and beauty, as examples, require us to use some real discernment, to take our time, to use a patient and studious eye, and to analyze them with a certain delicacy and precision. Sometimes these subtle things require us to completely stop what we are doing, or to at least slow down for a while, to fully consider their value and meaning.
Some days I crave being around only subtle things, mostly because they calm me. But at the same time, they challenge me to use my own wits and think for myself. These things, by their very nature, demand that I take a deeper look, that I use all of my senses, precisely because they are so subtle and deceptively simple. I want the challenge of understanding these things because my heart and mind need the exercise. Otherwise, I can fall into the trap of accepting things at face value or wanting simple, fast solutions all the time.
I crave the understated in life because there is a constant stream of “in-your-face” material assaulting my senses at every turn — things I must endure or have very little choice about experiencing. And most of the not-so-subtle things I experience don’t ask much of me, but instead, saturate me with ideas, imagery, opinions, or sounds with the same force as a fire hose, expecting me to drink it all in and process it in a way that the creators of it want me to.
Perhaps you have also felt this sense of helplessness and “overwhelmtia” when sitting at a car repair shop, while pumping gas, waiting in the lobby of your doctor’s office or in the grocery store check-out aisle. In most public places, we become part of their captive audience, bombarded by the outrageous, profane, or just plain ridiculous, on screens, in written materials, and everywhere else. It is little wonder that subtlety has gone by the wayside. We don’t seem to have the places, patience or the time anymore to hit the pause button, think about what it is we want to know, what we have just seen or to look under the hood of an idea, debate and share an analysis, or carefully weigh the pros and cons of an issue.
Why Subtle Things Matter
Growing up on the flat lands of Illinois gave me an appreciation for subtlety. There were no beautiful mountains or majestic red stone formations, no Grand Canyon to marvel at, no vast oceans to contemplate. We had to learn to look more carefully at what, at first blush, looks to be a rather boring and monotonous landscape. With a patient eye, trained to look beyond what is screaming at you, one can see so much more — the wildflowers hidden in a pocket of wild land, the songs of frogs in wetlands, the shimmer of a lake in the afternoon sun, waves of grass moving with the breeze, or the pastoral beauty of rolling pastures and farm fields. If you look closely enough, subtlety offers surprises around each and every turn.
Subtlety has an important role to play in our public and private lives. It can lead us away from simplistic temptations and the magical thinking that often accompanies the obvious, blatant, or pre-packaged analyses by talk show hosts. Subtlety asks us to stretch ourselves to see beyond black and white labels or cookbook solutions.
There is a need to re-engage with the subtle things in life. They often connect us more closely to truth, beauty, and wisdom, and even the greater mysteries of life. Most importantly, they can connect us more closely to each other. When I slow myself down to think clearly, the famous quote by the author of “The Little Prince”, Antoine Saint-Exupery, comes to mind,
“It is only in the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”