“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau.
This time of year we hear a Christmas song with the question – Do you see what I see? I think Thoreau really had something in mind like that when he penned the line in today’s quote. One often hears in stories about crimes that police have eye witness reports that are all different, in other words the various people did not all see what the others saw. How can that be? Do you see what I see?
Without getting deeply existential about it, what we “see” when welook at something can be completely different than what another witness to the event saw, because we are both seeing it from different, personal perspectives. Perspective, in this case, is not about camera angles and instant replays; it’s really about how our life experiences and knowledge base filters and colors what we observe into what we “see.” That’s what the question is valid – Do you see what I see?
One witness at a shooting sees a man trying to surrender, while another sees the man making an aggressive move. Which is right? Maybe neither, since both are filtered and colored by the background of the observer. There are such great gulfs in cultures that a gesture made in greeting or friendship in one culture may be taken as threatening or disrespectful in another culture. Cross-cultural differences often result in awkward moments when decisions about whether to shake hands or give a hug are being pondered when someone new enters the room. I’ve experienced that a lot in family gatherings with our in-laws. They are from an eastern European background, where greetings with a hug and kiss are the norm. More than once I’ve been awkwardly expending a hand while they were approaching with open arms for a hug. We eventually get it right and I am more careful to watch now for their signals as to whether this will be a shake for a hug greeting. Do you see what I see?
But culture isn’t the only influence on what we “see” in our day-today living. The experiences that we’ve accumulated during our lives and the knowledge (hopefully wisdom) that we’ve built up also act as filters for what we see, hear and experience as we go along. There are saying about the loss of innocence as we grow up and that loss is because innocence (or ignorance, if you prefer) is supplanted by experience and knowledge. Some of that knowledge is based upon direct experiences, but quite a bit is based upon the experiences or knowledge of others that is passed down to us. We don’t have to experience a mauling by a real, live bear to “know” that the bear in the zoo is not the same cute and cuddly playmate that our first Teddy Bear was. We begin to “see” bears differently and we attach a certain caution about the potential danger when we observe them, especially if we ever saw them in the wild. Do you see what I see?
Unfortunately, not all of the “wisdom” that is passed between generations is good or even valid. We are not born with prejudices against people of certain color or ethnicity. Prejudice is something that we “learn” from the talk and actions of others (usually our parents and friends) and it impacts how we “see” the people that we have been conditioned to see differently. Are there caution flags that pop up in your mind when you see a person of a certain color or race? How did those get there? Do they always prove to be true? If not, of what use are they for you and how do you get rid of them? Do you see what I see?
It can take quite a bit of effort and time to retrain you mind so that it does not immediately attach false warnings or prejudices to the things that you observe – to see them differently. A cute little article in the paper on Christmas Day focused upon a question from a child about the color of Santa Claus and an explanation used years ago on a TV show to explain how Santa can look like whatever he needs to look like to allow the observer to see what they what to see. Calling upon the magic of the season, the explanation given was that, as he came down the chimney into each house, Santa changed in ethnicity and color as was appropriate for that house. All the children just “saw” Santa. In this explanation, Santa was the perfect answer to the question – Do you see what I see?
But the real story of Christmas is about something that is impossible to observe with our eyes, but which can be seen if we look at it the right way. After all, how does one “see” pure love? We may be able to observe the birth of a child, but not “see” the pure love of a God willing to sacrifice His only Son for the forgiveness of our sins. So, look past all of the decorations and the presents. Look beyond the trappings of the seasons and the staged events both secular and church-oriented. Peer deeply into the eyes of a newborn baby and “see” the pure and unadulterated love that is there. Do you see what I see?