Eyes to See

An African proverb says: “The eyes of the foreigner are big but he does not see a thing.” It’s so true – you have to learn to see things in another culture. Otherwise you can look straight at things and you don’t have a clue what you are seeing.

The following paragraphs are the introduction to an interesting book review but I was even more fascinated by the personal examples in the introduction:

In college, I took a class with Toni Morrison based upon a collection of her essays called Playing in the Dark. The premise of the essays, and of the class itself, was that American literature has been shaped from the beginning by the unsettling presence of “American Africanism.” There is no need to get into the nuances of her argument here. I mention it only because after I took Morrison’s class, I read books differently. I was attuned to marginal figures. I noticed how black people were portrayed, or how their presence was avoided. I noticed motifs of darkness and light. I watched movies differently too, attending to the way certain racial groups were used as props instead of being presented as real characters. That class taught me to see differently.

Having a child with Down syndrome is also teaching me to see differently.

I think, for example, of the time when I attended a conference at a monastery in South Carolina. Our first night at the conference, we gathered for a short Bible reading and blessing before supper. An elderly man, one of the brothers in the monastery, held the responsibility of reading and praying for us. He walked unevenly to the podium, with his head tilted to the side. He stood behind the Bible, flipping through the pages, back and forth, with a puzzled expression. Finally, he looked to another brother and said, “I can’t find Genesis 1.” The other brother gently turned to the beginning of the Bible, and the first brother began to read. His speech was imperfect. He stumbled through the words and they came out somewhat garbled.

A few years earlier, before our daughter Penny was born, I would have been filled with impatience and cynicism. I would have been thinking, why can’t they find someone who can read, who at least knows where the first book in the Bible is located? But that night, I stood with rapt attention, grateful that I could receive the Word of God from this man. I was able to see him as a fellow Christian, offering a blessing on my behalf. I was able to see him as a messenger of hope, a vision of a community in Christ that might one day include my daughter, and even include her as one who could read God’s Word publicly, who could offer a collective prayer. Read the whole book review here.

I was touched by her examples of how we can learn to see things differently and then notice things that we did not see before, come to conclusions that we would not have thought possible before. Living in another culture challenges me to do this. My interest in anthropology certainly helps me, too. It is amazing how we can interpret things differently when when see them through another person’s eyes.

I experienced a similar eye opener through reading one of the conversations between Mack and Sarayu in “The Shack“: (pp 134-136)

“When something happens to you, how do you determine whether it is good or evil?”
Mack thought about it for a moment before answering. “Well, I have not really thought about that. I guess I would say something is good when I like it – when it makes me feel good or gives me a sense of security. Conversely, I’d call something evil that causes me pain or costs me something I want.”
“So it is pretty subjective then?”
“I guess it is.”
“And how confident are you in your ability to discern what indeed is good for you, and what is evil?”
“To be honest,” said Mack, “I tend to sound justifiably angry when somebody is threatening my ‘good,’ you know, what I think I deserve. But I’m not really sure I have any logical ground for deciding what is actually good and evil, except how something or someone affects me.” […] “All seems quite self-serving and self-centered, I suppose. […]”

He hesitated before finishing the thought, but Sarayu interrupted, “Then it is you who determines good and evil. You become the judge. And to make things more confusing, that which you determine to be good will change over time and circumstances. And then beyond that and even worse, there are billions of you each determining what is good and what is evil. So your good and evil clashes with your neighbor’s fights and arguments ensue and even wars break out.”
“I can see now,” confessed Mack, “that I spend most of my time and energy trying to acquire what I have determined to be good, whether it’s financial security or health or retirement or whatever. And I spend a huge amount of energy and worry fearing what I’ve determined to be evil.”
“Wow,” Mack exclaimed, […] “It could mean that …”
Sarayu interrupted his sentence again, “… that in one instance, the good may be the presence of cancer or the loss of income – or even a life.”

Ever since reading this conversation some time ago, I started to look at things differently. What is good and what is bad for me? How often do I judge things from a very subjective perspective? Actually, I can think of a few things in my own life, that I judged to be bad but now start to see that they really might have been part of God’s perfect and loving plan for me. As painful as the situation was, there was good in it. This is not always easy to admit.

[There are other interesting aspects in this conversion that I left out for the moment but hope to address in a future post.]

Have you experienced this kind of learning to see things with new eyes?

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