Tuesday, May 12, 2015

To See or Not to See? - That Is the Question

I learned something new and remarkable today.  Evidently, our organs of seeing are nothing short of miraculous when it comes to how our eyes partner with our brains to turn light into sight.  According to Ophthalmologist Dr. Robert Reiser, light bouncing off the objects in front of us enters our eyes in straight lines, which are then bent or refracted by our corneas (which are the outermost layer of our pupils).  The light then passes through the front of our eye through our adjustable pupil (adjustable in terms of diameter).  Then these light waves are bent a bit more by another adjustable lens, then through the back chamber of the eye, finally striking our retina, where our light sensors are located.  (see Dr. Reiser’s column, ‘Crozet Annals of Medicine: Blindsight’ in the Crozet Gazette: http://www.crozetgazette.com/category/columns/medicine/).  All basic stuff for the medically minded among us, I know.

The bit that’s new to me is that, unexpectedly, the retina’s blood supply, that network of arteries and veins that keeps everything going, isn’t found behind the retina where one might expect it to lie helpfully out of the way.  Instead that web of blood vessels is in front of it.  That means these arteries and veins constantly create shadows on our retinas.  But even though these vessels are literally right in front of our eyes, or at least our retinas, we never see their shadows.  Our brains filter the image and extrapolate enough information to fill in the part where these vessels crisscross our field of vision.  The implications of this are rather stunning.  We see what our brains tell us to see, not what is actually there.

There are, of course, a significant number of people who are blind.  Some have been blind from birth, some become blind by accident.  Some people gradually lose their sight through illnesses such as glaucoma.  But even before I read the article by Dr. Reiser, I had become increasingly aware of how people who think they see perfectly well can in fact be blind.  Sometimes we are blind because we see only what we expect to see and pay no attention to something else that may be going on. Camouflage in nature and on army trucks exploits this tendency.  We overlook the moth on the tree because we don’t expect a moth to look like bark.  We overlook the fawn curled up in the grass because when we look we assume grass and not fawns.  But think of how many ants we pass by every day, on the sidewalk, on the road, on the path – hundreds, thousands of them, and we don’t see them.  They just don’t register.  The same with people.  How many people do we ‘lay eyes on’ in a given day but then never ‘see’?  Instead, we see what we want to see, and we see who we want to see.

We often use words of sight to describe what’s going on in our hearts.  And we see some of the same dynamics at work there.  In terms of our awareness, we also ‘see’ what we want to ‘see’, and don’t ‘see’ those things that we don’t want to ‘see’.  For example, men often times have a very difficult time admitting that they are depressed or that they may need help.  We refuse to ‘see’ it, and for any number of reasons.  It’s called denial.  We suppress the symptoms, double down on doing our job or what needs to be done at home, all the while refusing to acknowledge that our productivity and our relationships are being increasingly affected by our downward spiral into depression.

In my own case, I see now that challenging experiences I had when I was a teenager had a profound effect on my ability to deal with conflict or trauma, as well as my own struggle with sexual temptation.  For decades I refused to acknowledge the depths of the damage; I suppressed any acknowledgement that I needed help or that anything might be wrong.  Thirty years later, when I finally had the courage to work through what happened to me and survey the damage my blindness to my reality had done to me and my relationships, I was nearly undone by what my inability to see and perceive and understand had wrought.

Like Trees Walking

In another relationship, I had sensed from almost the beginning that something was not right.  And from time to time I would try to talk about what I was feeling.  But because the reaction was so negative I chose to believe what I was told, namely that these problems were actually my doing and thus my fault and that I was the one who needed to change.  I believed these messages, which were constant and consistent over decades.  And thus I suppressed the accumulating evidence to the contrary.  I would experience something painful and negative, but then, against what I ‘saw’ and experienced, I would believe what I was told again and again, that the real problem was me.  With the help of counseling, I began to ‘see’ what was really happening.  I took steps to act on what I saw and experienced.  But it was very difficult.  I had acquiesced for so long, it was easy to simply fall back into that posture.  But my newfound sight enabled me to call attention to the real source of the dysfunction and I was increasingly able to draw healthy boundaries beyond which I would no longer allow myself to be pushed.  This story ended badly.  But it serves me as a signal example of how, for many and complex reasons, we often won’t see what we don’t want to see.

or maybe, just start seeing.

Finally, sometimes our brains fill in the shadows with their own assumptions.  As with the network of veins and arteries in front of our retinas and our counter-intuitive seamless vision, our minds also fill in an amazing amount of misleading information about the people in front of us with whom we have to do.  I come from a culture that sees a person of color and already our minds are busy imputing all sorts of character traits just because they come from this or that ethnic group, and we don’t even know them!  Or say this group of gay friends hears that their new neighbor is an Evangelical (or was that Orthodox) Christian and they immediately are busy imputing all sorts of character traits just because they come from this or that religious group, and they don’t even know him!  We claim to see, but we don’t.  Or there was a friendship that was shattered because she heard something that made her presume that he was doing this and that when that was not the case at all.  But his story didn’t fit into her narrative and he was driven away and all that they had shared for so long was lost.  Sometimes our prejudices or fears fill in information that simply isn’t true, and when we then act on what we ‘see’, it can be very hurtful and destructive.

Silly me.  I thought people who see can see.  And people who are blind can’t. But now I think I can ‘see’ better what Jesus is getting at in the conversation he has in John’s gospel after He heals the man born blind:

‘Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind, too, are we?’  Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see," your sin remains.’”  John 8:40-41