Seeing and Understanding
Clearing out a drawer of my desk the other day, and not before time some would say, I discovered an old children’s book. Glancing through the pages I found a series of pictures where “the eye is deceived” as the heading had it. I am sure you will have seen the sort of thing yourself at some time.
One picture showed the silhouettes of two faces in profile, facing one another. But as one looked at it, the area between the two dark heads revealed an alternative picture, that of a white urn or vase.
Another picture was of a group of cubes with different coloured faces. At first one appeared to be looking down on them from above. Then as one stared at the picture, the view changed and it seemed one was looking upwards at the underside, and then once again the view was from above.
In both cases the picture had remained the same. What changed was the perception of the viewer as to what the pictures portrayed. The interpretation rested with ones-self.
Over the page were a number of photographs described as “puzzle pictures”. Guess what they are, was the challenge. The pictures were of common objects photographed from unusual angles, or from a short distance, showing only a portion of the article. A comb was snapped from close up, so it appeared like a fence with great sharp stakes sticking upwards. A brush head with similar focus seemed to be ripening cereal in a field. You know the sort of thing, as you surely will have seen similar pictures yourself. To identify the pictures you had to adapt your normal opinion of what the world looked like, and reject a narrow interpretation of the appearance of common articles. It was almost like learning to see again. A fresh angle or perspective on the familiar object took one into new areas.
Are you like me and thrown into confusion if the map on the page doesn’t show north at the top? If the English Channel is other than at the bottom of the page, and the Shetland Isles at the top, then it is difficult to accept that this is a proper map of the British Isles. Useless to be told that in reality Scotland is no more up there than London is below Edinburgh. We know different, because only what is familiar can be true.
Of course it is not simply the eye which is being deceived in the puzzle picture, but our interpretation of what the world looks like is challenged. We turn the map round to better understand it because we have accepted that truth lies only in the familiar, or so we are apt to feel. There is unease in looking from new angles and being dared to admit the new viewpoints are as valid as the old ones.
An experience we all have had is to listen to some-one describing an event at which we have been present – witness to an accident, perhaps, a reported conversation, or even recalling a sermon – and to be sure that the narrator hasn’t got it quite right. One saw and heard it rather differently. But likely it was not what one saw or what one heard that was different, but the reaction to, and interpretation of, the events which differed. “What is truth?” asked jesting Pilate; like Beauty, it so often rests in the eye, or more plausibly the mind, of the beholder.
There is an old warning given to those called upon to judge the rights and wrongs between two persons in dispute. It cautions that there can be more than one side to a story. A line in one of our hymns has a similar theme – “…things are not what they seem”. And then there is that old couplet, a one time favourite quotation for a wayside pulpit;
“Two men looked out from prison bars
One saw mud, the other stars.”
The window was the same, the view was the same, but where one looked, how one felt, how one chose to interpret the scene affected what each perceived. Like the pessimist and the optimist viewing the glass containing liquid to the half-way mark – half full and half empty are equally correct descriptions of the same scene, but the perception of what one sees, and the reaction to it, quite different.
To see is a small verb, but one which may have a narrow or a broad meaning. We may confine it to sight, so that if we close our eyes we no longer see. But we may broaden it, so that seeing is no longer merely about eyesight but encompasses understanding. The most satisfying moments of teaching come when some-one has been led through the jungle of facts and explanations, and suddenly says, “Yes, now I see”. The revelation has come, not to the physical eye, but to the inward sense. A piece of the jig-saw of life, of knowledge, has fallen into place.
If one believes, as I do, that within each one of us is a spark of the divine, one may also accept that this ability, not merely to visualise but also to comprehend, stems from this divine glowing ember. There are a number of gifts which are unique to humankind – anticipation, communication, recollection, appreciation for example – but not the least of these gifts is comprehension, or the ability to understand and make sense of the environment in which we dwell.
Eyesight is a precious attribute, as are the other senses of hearing, taste and smell. But they may mislead us, as do the puzzle pictures in the child’s book, if we rely upon them in isolation. It is the interpretation of these sensations, which is the further ingredient without which we are deceived.
I remember reading some time ago of how a person born blind might sometimes be able to have an operation to give them sight. But giving sight in this way was only a start of a long learning process. After a successful operation the person had to learn to see – to make sense of a mass of confusing lines, shapes and surfaces with confidence, without the need to touch and feel. The eye merely provides the raw information. It is the mind which assembles, collates and interprets this information. In the profile of the two heads facing one another I mentioned earlier, we decide whether it is the heads which are of greater importance, or whether the space which is between them is of greater significance. So the picture may be of people, or of an urn.
It is because of this role played by the mind in interpreting what the eye sees, that we may say that what we see is determined by what we are. Whether we see mud or stars, whether we rejoice at what is left in the glass, or bemoan that which has gone, is a reflection of ourselves. It indicates how we see the world.
One of the best known and most often quoted passages in the New Testament is in Matthew 5, the verses known as the Beatitudes. You will recall one of those verses,
“How blest are those whose hearts are pure;
They shall see God.”
Sight is governed by what we are. What we are is intricately inter-woven with our sight and understanding.
“God be in my head
And in my understanding:
God be in my eyes
And in my looking;”
run the opening words of the vesper hymn. Seeing, understanding, believing are not only attributes of human existence, they are its life-blood. If what we see around us only depresses; if the landscape appears solely to consist of mud; if the world is utterly devoid of beauty, and the visions are nightmares; then perhaps it is not our eyesight which is faulty but a failure to comprehend. The mass of information fed to us is, as the computer buff would say, not being properly processed. Perhaps we have a pre-conceived opinion of what the world is really like, and so, as it were, direct our eyes to accept only that which fits that diagnosis.
You recall that phrase in the Old Testament which says that God looked upon the world “…and saw that it was good”. If one follows up this metaphor, it surely does not imply that there is nothing bad, or evil and wicked within the world, for that is palpably untrue. There is only too much sinfulness around us. But we must not put it all out of proportion. The glass of goodness is sadly not full to the brim, but neither is it empty.
The divine spark, of which I earlier spoke, is within us all. If God could look upon the world and see the goodness within it, so can we. That is not to say that we should ignore, or be selectively blind to sinfulness and wickedness, but we should not be overwhelmed by it. There is no cause for despair or deep pessimism. To listen to some people one would imagine that there is no joy, no beauty, no wonders to behold. Such selective vision is a denial of our divine inheritance.
“Teach me to see what Thou dost see
And love what Thou dost love”
wrote the hymnist. Part of the object of our worship is surely to extend and deepen our understanding. In so doing we see more clearly and more truly, and to hope more realistically, that we may come to see God.
C.J. Rosling 10 September 1994
Fulwood 11 September 1994
Mexborough 11 September 1994; 2 May 1998
Hucklow 25 May 1998