What do you see?

July 2, 2015

“Humans see what they want to see.”  (Rick Riordan)

That’s a provocative, but, oh so true, statement. It is perhaps the root of all prejudice that different people can look at the same thing or person and “see” two completely different things. It’s hard to imagine that the human eyes of those two people actually capture and process the image any differently. An apple would look the same to any two people, one must presume; and an orange would look noticeably different to both.

old layd young girlBut what Riordan is referencing is not the physical act of the eye capturing the image; but rather what the mind does to interpret that image – what our pre-conceived notions do to the image to distort it in our minds. We use the word “see” quite often to reference what we imagine (or “see”) in our minds eye. It’s as if we have a little Photoshop app in our minds that add things to the picture that our eye captured – layers and nuances- and then may distort  that image to either enhance it or make it ugly. So, what do you “see” in this graphic, which is perhaps the most famous optical illusion of all time. Do you see the young girl or the old lady or both?

Sometimes the surrounding environment or the setting can influence what we see. Sometimes the people that we may be looking at have gone to great lengths to fool us into seeing what they want us to see. Sometimes we combine things that we can physically see with things that are “suggested” to us to conjure up what we “see”. A great example is the recent ads that showed a hip-hop DJ who was cleaned up, dressed up and supplied with a few impressive sounding things to say about personal finances and placed in a professional looking office setting. He fooled everyone and they all “saw” him as a financial adviser that they would trust. I suppose the people who saw Bernie Madoff as someone to trust were fooled by what they saw, too.

At a day-to-day level, many people have developed a knack for not seeing the things in life that they don’t want to see. They can look passed that man on the street corner begging for food or a place to live. They
diverse hands look at an LGBT person or couple and their vision is clouded by fear and hate and they “see” only sin and unholy behavior (at least by their self-righteous standards). They look at a black person or a Hispanic and “see” only a criminals and drug dealers and welfare scofflaws (especially Donald Trump). If they don’t see someone who looks a lot like themselves then they don’t “see” people worthy of meeting and interacting with; perhaps they even see danger and ill intent where none exists.

It is our ability to add nuance and context from our own minds to what we physically see that can either visualizationenhance the picture or darken it. That is something that we must always be keenly aware of and vigilant to control. That is especially true in setting where the other people may have greatly different styles and manner of dress than us. Walk into a tattoo parlor and see what you “see”. How much of what you see in your mind’s eye prejudices you before the first word is spoken. Walk into a predominantly black or Hispanic bar or night club and see what your mind’s eye tells you about the clothes that you “see.” Are you really seeing things or is your own mind and your prejudices coloring the scene for you? You probably can’t see what you are missing by letting those prejudices control what you think you “see”.

It’s strangely appropriate that people will often use the expression “I see you completely differently, now”; once they have gotten past their initial prejudices and really taken the time to get to know the person that they initially saw as a threat or as someone to be avoided. I think that the phrase that we started with – Humans see what they want to see – needs our attention. We need to want to see; to really “see” the person that is standing in front of us and not just the mental image that we have conjured up out of our minds eye. To do that we must be more aware of that predisposition to allow things from our past color what we see now. It’s not easy. It takes conscious effort; but the effort is worth the reward of being able to cut through themen hugging layers of misunderstanding or misinformation and actually “see” who is really there.

The more that you try to do this – to really see without pre-judging – the easier it will get for you and the more you will find that you’ve been missing out on knowing some pretty interesting people because what you saw before had nothing to do with who they really are. As for the guy on the corner asking for help; the next time that you see him, think of it as if you were holding up a hand mirror and look that guy in the eye and see if you can as easily look straight through him. You don’t know his story and no one will know yours if you should end up there someday if they don’t “see” you. Maybe that will help you “see” things in a different light.

In the meantime; I’ll “see” you later.