Don’t Crop the Picture

Don't Crop the Photo

I took this amazing mental photograph of the Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1983. Though I didn’t have a camera to record it, the image stays with me. The trouble is my mental imprint is not exactly what most would admire. It would seem easy to take a great picture in this majestic setting. The challenge is to be very selective about what you include in the frame.

That summer I served as the director for a cross-country camping tour for teenagers. I was 23 years old and this was my first serious leadership challenge. With some previous experience behind me in a similar setting and a bit of additional training, I was entrusted with 42 14-year-olds, most of whom had never been camping; five counselors who were all recent college graduates; a cook who also served as my assistant director and drove our support vehicle; a tour bus and a bus driver who loved country music to the distress of many of the students; $28,000 in travelers checks, which took me several hours to sign in advance; and two humongous binders of detailed information about every stop on the six-week tour.

Yellowstone was a planned destination on an impressive itinerary. But, by this time in a journey that originated in New York, our intrepid campers could be heard saying things like, “If you’ve seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all. Can we stop at a mall on the way?” Despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm, we poured out of the bus into a parking lot adjacent to Lookout Point, which boasts a picturesque view of the Lower Falls.

I stood quietly along the wall truly impressed by the natural beauty. Yet, I could not separate the distant vision from the immediate surroundings. The stone platform on which we stood was crowded with visitors. The trash cans were overflowing. The fumes from tour buses made it difficult to breathe. The cacophony of sounds coming from parents scolding children, students laughing in small groups and the overall rumble of conversation was discordant.

I longed for three magic tools. A visual eraser, a mute button, and a clothes pin to eliminate the sights, sounds and smells that detracted from an inspiring setting – one that deserved more reverence and respect. I felt robbed of an opportunity to experience something transcendent as the profane traduced the profound.

I suppose my memory of the experience would have been more laced with nostalgia if I had taken a camera and reduced the image to a carefully cropped and silent photograph. It would have left me with an accurate depiction of the incredible natural beauty of that place. But it would not have been an honest representation of the experience, which I now hold in far greater value. There was an important lesson to be learned: Reality often gets in the way of the idyllic.

Sometimes I find myself spending precious time advocating for a world that no longer exists – perhaps never existed – and complaining about the world that does exist. Do I want to live in a setting where the image is carefully defined and preserved? If I am honest, that’s just a way of cropping reality to match my own view of the world. Am I sometimes vulnerable to living a “Photoshop” existence? One in which my task is to crop out whatever doesn’t fit into my preferred picture?

My idyllic view excludes things like interpersonal tension and conflict. There is no wrongdoing on the part of bad actors. People are tolerant and understanding in this world, always acting in good faith. Yet, I am reminded of the words often repeated by a professor I had in graduate school who taught courses in law and education. We would examine a case seeking to understand the source of the conflict. Our puzzlement would increase as the case unfolded, and he would smile and quietly remind us, “Even reasonable people can disagree.”

I remember those in my life who have taught me how to embrace what is before me and find comfort in knowing that attempting to edit reality only leads to disappointment. Things will never be perfect enough. Satisfaction, therefore, does not emerge from perfection; it is found in reconciliation, resolution and restoration.

When I was a kid, the entry to our apartment was in the kitchen. Next to the door was a green chalkboard for messages. There was a time when the church we attended was facing some difficulties. I was not fully aware of the situation, but I knew enough to understand there were tensions and some degree of conflict. One day I was heading out the door, and I saw a message written on the chalkboard. It read, “Stop looking for the perfect church. You couldn’t attend anyway.” It was my mother’s way of reminding us that human organizations are inherently flawed because we are there. I learned that any attempt to crop my picture of the church simply lacked authenticity.

Human organizations of all kinds, despite divine or noble purpose, are flawed because we are in the picture. Sometimes we don’t like what we see, hear and smell. Our work as citizens, coworkers and members, however, is to see the authenticity of the actual and embrace that reality. By this we may be able to move beyond accusation and complaint, and create new opportunities. While our desire might be to say “MAKE IT GO AWAY!” our shared commitment is to respond to the real. Our task is to be constructive in the midst of conflict. To learn resilience in the wake of failure. To process change and find pathways to success. To promote common well-being across difference and diversity. To fulfill the responsibilities and privileges of membership. And, to do so, we need to see the whole picture.

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11 responses to “Don’t Crop the Picture”

  1. Don Huffman says:

    Sorry, but someone has cropped Joy’s message if it had one.

    • Larry Embling says:


      Don’t you be grading my comments…. I am too old to change…lol

      • Don Huffman says:

        Good to hear that you are still seeing the uncropped whole picture of reality! I still have some uncropped memories of the Boundary Waters trips, the competitive BW Olympics, and I am glad that we had the opportunity for these experiences.
        Stay well and keep in touch!
        Don Huffman

  2. Larry Embling says:

    Boy that sure hits the nail on the head….great article. Working in a state penitentiary I see imperfection on a daily basis along with numerous attempts to find the perfect excuse, or means of freedom. I counsel these men regularly and the your article really says it all. Quit looking for a perfect solution to your problems or dilemmas…. live in the moment and make it as good as you can. Don’t crop the picture. Thanks for the thought Mark.

    Larry Embling class of ’68

  3. Poem by Mary Oliver–“The Ponds”
    Every year
    the lilies
    are so perfect
    I can hardly believe

    Their lapped light crowding
    the black,
    mid-summer ponds.
    Nobody could count all of them—

    the muskrats swimming
    among the pads and the grasses
    can reach out
    their muscular arms and touch

    only so many, they are that
    rife and wild.
    But what in this world
    is perfect?

    I bend closer and see
    how this one is clearly lopsided—
    and that one wears an orange blight—
    and this one is a glossy cheek

    half nibbled away—
    and that one is a slumped purse
    full of its own
    unstoppable decay.

    Still, what I want in my life
    is to be willing
    to be dazzled—
    to cast aside the weight of facts

    and maybe even
    to float a little
    above this difficult world.
    I want to believe I am looking

    into the white fire of a great mystery.
    I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
    that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
    of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

  4. Jeff Kisner, '77 says:

    I once heard of a college somewhere that “photoshopped” official, published images of new buildings and athletic events to give the impression that there were more people in attendance than there actually were. Impression management, a concept I learned during my research for a paper I wrote at CUI, always substitutes the idyllic for reality. Reality is what it is, imperfections and all, being redeemed, restored. The failure to see things as they are circumvents the gift of gratitude and the vision that “the light is everything.”

    Thanks for the poem, Lois. Grateful to share our common heritage while Larry Embling was working on campus and Don Huffman was teaching there.

  5. harley Riak "69" says:

    Dr Putnum,
    Your article brings back great memories of my life after Central. I began working for a Teen Tour company in 1969. Metric Teen Tours became my home (Rich World Travel)for the next 27 years. My road map for “life” was based on my experiences that I learned and subsequently taught my teenage tour members. Your take on “you see one, you see them all” is so true of the Adolescent mind. However, believe it or not, the experiences will be with them forever.
    Great article.

  6. Harlan Ratmeyer says:

    Great insight. I work with many clergy who love the church in their mind, but decry the congregation they are serving, even scolding them for being so small or whatever. Until they can embrace the whole picture there is little likelihood of a movement toward health or improvement.

  7. Jim Weir says:

    It’s interesting that our immediate observations and our long term memory can differ or concur with events experienced. But you are right in that the window that motivates us to action is often short lived. Our lives must go on, right?

    The Ostrich “head in the sand” (they don’t really do that) or as you exclaim “MAKE IT GO AWAY” is common behavior amongst all of us – when our primary needs (I’m referring to food & shelter, not cell phone access) seem to taken care of. Yet problems that effect our long term social and personal liberties do exist and addressing them should go beyond “I’ll have a study done on that”. Essentially, we all have a call to action. We need to dramatically cut the spending rate and plans our federal government has directed us into, or the freedoms and liberties we have – perhaps even to explore and enjoy our national parks and monuments – will disappear. Our homes, businesses and corporations need to address environmental, ethical and social issues with a conscience and vigilance independent (and without the expense) of government regulation. By unleashing the power of enterprise, individuals – all of us – can make a difference.

    As always, thanks for provoking thought

    Jim Weir ’78

  8. Deb Mechler says:

    Thank you for thoughtful insight in the midst of so many other voices that join to the rush to judgment. This essay is perfectly timed for a period of struggle in the congregation I serve as a pastor. I am also grateful for the poem Lois shared. Observations like these are water to a thirsty soul, in a desert of ideas that lack nourishment for the journey.

  9. Lloyd Sandbulte says:

    I grew up in a home where we learned to be appreciative of what we had, and the idea of “pet peeves” was foriegn to me. As a freshman at Central, our speech class was given the assignment of discussing a pet peeve. Struggling to relate to the idea, I concluded that my pet peeve was people who nursed pet peeves. I did not realize until later that my speech would be considered offensive by the other speakers who completed the assignment more in line with its intent. A picture that remains in my mind is the professor’s critique – “never, never talk down to your audience”. The wisdom of that critique has stayed with me,and that guidance has caused me to strive to address differences with others in constructive ways. I am forever grateful.