The Things We See

by Andrea Simantov January 29, 2016
 

 

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My favorite teacher once pointed out that we don’t only choose our battles, we choose where to show kindness. This lesson made a great impact on me because, despite having a mind like a sieve, I saw it in the relationships around me. If I loved someone who was a busy-body and spoke loudly, I’d say, “She’s the life of the party” and “She loves people.” But if someone I disliked possessed the same qualities, I might say, “What a yenta” and “She sucks the air out of the room.” Each person exudes the same qualities, so the reaction has less to do with the person than me.

Someone recently sent me a YouTube video of an experiment where six photographers were assigned to create a portfolio of a man named Michael.  The twist was that each photographer was told a different background story. Respectively, the bio-data they were given included self-made millionaire, life-saving hero, ex-inmate, commercial fisherman, psychic, former alcoholic.  The photographers were told to flesh out the essence of the subject. Still not knowing the truth – Michael is none of those things – they described their experiences as “really intense,” “intimidating,” “very open.” The powerful depictions that resulted appeared to be shots of different men.

This skewing of vision based on our own perceptions reminds me of how, during my teen years, I suffered pangs of jealousy toward the girls whose mothers smoked pot with them or accompanied them to the local women’s health clinic to have them outfitted with birth control.  Why couldn’t my mother be that cool and tuned-in to what was really going on in the sex/drugs/rock-and-roll world that I inhabited? I yearned for the green-grass of hipper gardens where mothers and daughters could be giggling best friends instead of constant combatants.   Decades later, having achieved 20/20 hindsight, my heart breaks for these same classmates who were denied the wisdom and moral certainty of a loving parent and would, in time, find themselves saddled with an elderly charge who was deeply in need of guidance. It only took me a few decades to see things differently, with sharper lenses, better-honed with age.

Sometimes I forget to put on the objective perspective spectacles. The best example of this happens at 5:30 a.m. every morning when my husband and I observe our ritual of drinking coffee on the glassed-in patio. Even on winter’s bitterest days, I turn on an electric heater, light a small lantern and we talk about the day ahead. This routine is ironclad, ensuring that no matter what uncertainty awaits us “out there,” the day is already a winner. Aching joints and all, enveloped in trust, appreciation and prayer for the other’s success, we can face a challenging world.

Mountains, desert and minarets pepper the landscape but I often miss this. Instead, my eyes are drawn to a brightly lit kitchen in the building across the alley. For years I have only seen the hands and arms of the woman who, at that ungodly hour, lovingly prepares food for the day ahead; hands knead bread and dust flour on chicken cutlets. She is immaculate as she wipes the counter between each chore, washing her hands in the stainless steel sink. She is young because her arms and hands are firm. She is married and a mother, her crack-of-dawn kitchen routine rife with love. She is religiously-observant because she never missed a night of placing the Hanukkah candles at the window ledge. She is Sephardic and votes the same way I do.

This is who she is because this is who I need her to be.

Perspective is subjective. Someone else might observe the hands of a recent widow/job-hunter, transsexual, newlywed, left-wing activist, Arab/Christian, etc. (My husband doesn’t know which window I’m talking about.) Is seeing what we want to see a bad thing? I think it’s just a thing. But ascribing holiness to our individual biases is where we may trip up. We’re responsible for choosing the slant of the “stories” we encounter. As long as we remember that, we can keep the rose-colored glasses on.

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